25 Deep: The Blue Jays’ Judicious June

By: Dan Grant

In this 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?

“The first two months of the season are for evaluation. The second two months are for action. The third two months are for winning.”

–Billy Beane, Oakland A’s Executive VP

It’s a quote that’s probably a bit tired, but it certainly seems to be holding true for these 2016 Toronto Blue Jays. After an ignominious April that saw them sub .500 and completely lacking the offensive fire that powered their 2015 playoff run, the Jays seem to have turned a corner of sorts in the second half of May. The significance of a 9-3 record in their last twelve games is bolstered by the fact that they’ve posted a 7-2 mark versus Boston and New York, including a fresh three game sweep of the pinstriped ones. This a team still figuring itself out, though the strengths and weaknesses have become fairly obvious at this point. Look for Toronto to augment the bullpen over the next two months, as it prepares itself for a potential playoff push.

We have a new number one on the list this month, for the first time ever. Marcus Stroman has been usurped, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, his own performance — allowing 7 earned runs in two of your last three starts will invariably knock you down a peg — but far more importantly, the performance of the rest of the starting rotation has necessitated the move.

Stroman was initially classified number one on this list because of the uncertainty surrounding the starting pitching. Did R.A. Dickey have another half-decent season in him? Could Aaron Sanchez be effective as a full-time starter? Which J.A. Happ were we getting? Would Marco Estrada continue to be a BABIP wizard? The answers to those questions are, in order: ‘yes’, ‘oh baby yes’, ‘the good one’ and ‘looking damn good so far’, which has mitigated the need for Stroman to be flawless. It’s a lovely adjustment to make. Dropping the Stro-show out of the number one spot on this list certainly doesn’t mean he isn’t still Toronto’s most important starting pitcher, because he is. It just means that the team doesn’t need him to be 2002 Roy Halladay in order to win.

Disabled List (Unranked this month)

Franklin Morales (NR)

Brett Cecil (7)

Troy Tulowitzki (2)

While things are rolling for the Jays right now, there are certainly some negatives sprinkled in. Franklin Morales has barely pitched for the team but has now spent enough time on the roster that his 2.5 million dollar salary became fully guaranteed. Brett Cecil was ineffective to begin the season (something heavily examined in 25 Deep last month) and has now been diagnosed with a torn latissimus dorsi muscle. He was placed on the 15 day DL May 15th and is expected to miss at least a month. This has left an already scuffling bullpen even more shorthanded, though that has been somewhat cushioned by the return of lefty Aaron Loup and the acquisition of Jason Grilli from the Atlanta Braves.

Troy Tulowitzki joined Cecil on the shelf May 28th, landing on the 15 day DL when he aggravated a lingering quad strain. He’s expected to be back in the minimum amount of time, and probably will be, but with Tulo’s injury history, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. It’s too bad, because Tulowitzki seemed like he was beginning to figure it out with the bat, hitting .300/.308/.560, and significantly raising his WRC+ (to a whopping 81) in the 13 games since the Jays reconfigured their batting order and dropped him to the 6th spot.

The theme of 25 Deep this month is the steady climbers. These are the players who have improved gradually as the season has worn on, including a couple guys who have far outperformed expectations. This small group has picked up the slack for a roster that has offensively underachieved and struggled to hold leads — without them, it’s possible that this season would have been a whole lot uglier before the recent success.

grilli

‘The key is that you take some cheese, and then you grill that sumbitch’

The Turner Ward Ward

25. Ryan Tepera (RP) (24)

24. Jason Grilli (RP) (24)

The Turner Ward Ward has been in such flux lately that it’s tough to single out a player for analysis. Tepera and Goins have already been featured, and both have relegated themselves to being basically inconsequential. Josh Thole and Ezequiel Carrera are what they are at this point, warm bodies filling roles. Aaron Loup has made two appearances since returning, one that looked horrible and one that was much better– pretty standard for the Aaron Loup experience, at least since 2015.

Jason Grilli doesn’t fit the ‘steady climbers’ theme since he’s only thrown 0.1 innings as a Jay so far, but he’s an interesting acquisition for Toronto in both the short and longer term. Despite being long in the tooth at age 39, he was very effective as recently as last season for Atlanta, when he posted a 2.94 ERA, a 2.12 FIP and 12.0 K/9, before suffering a season ending Achilles injury. I looked at his fugly line so far this season– 5.19 ERA, 1.706 WHIP, 4.41 FIP– and hoped to see some early season blow-ups followed by a string of more effective outings, and I sort of got what I hoped for. He was better in May than April, but still wasn’t great. He’s stiff whiffing dudes (14.0 K/9 in May) but he’s been issuing walks at a career high and completely unplayable rate. If he can reign in his control issues, he could be a bargain acquisition for Toronto, as they’re paying the minimum for him this season and he has a peanuts 3.5 million option for 2017. That’s the thing with Grilli– it’s unclear just which pitcher the Jays have acquired. He could easily feature more prominently in these rankings very quickly, or he could be off the roster come July.

A couple interesting notes: his father made a single appearance for the Jays sometime in the 1980’s, so he becomes the back half of the second father-son Blue Jays duo, entering an exclusive that contains only John Mayberry Sr. and Jr. He also loves grilled cheese (a lot), which brings him up a notch in my book, and hopefully yours as well, unless you’re a cheese hating goon.

23. Josh Thole (C) (23)

22. Aaron Loup (RP) (NR)

21. Ryan Goins (INF) (18)

20.  Ezequiel Carrera (OF) (19)

darwinbarney

‘I can hit, I swear!’

Maldonado’s Misfits

19. Joe Biagini (RP) (22)

18. Darwin Barney (INF) (20)

Darwin Barney won a gold glove playing second base for the Chicago Cubs in 2012. His bat didn’t really play very well, but that iteration of the Cubs lost 101 times, so they trotted him out for 156 games and didn’t seem to mind. His glove was good enough that he was still worth 4.6 WAR, despite his anemic plate production. In fact, he’s really never hit well in the majors, posting a career .250/.297/.345 slash line over nearly 2200 plate appearances.

Until he came to Toronto.

The 30 year old Barney was picked up by dire necessity when Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis went down with injuries in August of last year. He was scooped from the LA Dodgers so late in the season that he wasn’t even eligible for the playoffs. He spent the majority of 2015 in Triple A. He hit well enough in 26 plate appearances spread over 15 September games that Toronto decided to retain his services for 2016, ostensibly as filler until Travis returned from off-season shoulder surgery. Most thought that when Travis returned, he’d either be DFA’d or sent to Buffalo, with Ryan Goins assuming the primary back-up infielder role. No longer. Barney has snatched that role away from Goins, and is currently slotted in as the Jays starting shortstop while Tulowitzki deals with injury. When Tulo returns, it’s expected that Goins will be the one heading to Buffalo. Unlike Barney, Goins has options, meaning he doesn’t need to pass through waivers to be sent down, but it’s really a straight-up production thing at this point, as Barney has far outplayed him.

While Goins has struggled so mightily at the plate that Barney need only be average to take the lions share of the playing time, he’s instead posted an incredible .344/.379/.467 slash line, with a WRC+ of 133. There’s no way he’ll be able to maintain those numbers moving forward– his career high 15.2% K rate combined with a gaudy .397 BABIP are harbingers of a fall from grace, plus, you know, he’s not Rod Carew — but he’s undoubtedly been a bright spot for Toronto so far. When he inevitably hits his way back into a back-up role, fans shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed. He’s already provided 1.4 WAR for a team that sorely needed help over the the majority of the past two months, and he’s earned a spot on the roster for the rest of the season.

17. Gavin Floyd (RP) (21)

16.  Jesse Chavez (RP) (17)

15. Drew Storen (RP) (8)

14. Devon Travis (2B) (NR)

saunders

Is Saunders the real life Adam Banks? ‘Coach, I woke up this morning… and the pain was gone’

adambanksgif

The Fernandez Fraternity

13.  Justin Smoak (1B) (14)

12. Kevin Pillar (CF) (13)

11. R.A. Dickey (SP) (16)

10. Michael Saunders (OF)  (15)

Saunders has rocketed up these rankings, going from not ranked because of injury uncertainty, to the middle of the pack last month and now kicking down the door into the top 10. The failing bullpen and a Tulowitzki injury may have aided him in getting there, but more importantly what’s happened is what every scout and coach that Saunders has ever had has wanted — he’s stayed healthy.

His WRC+ of 149 is easily the best of any Toronto regular and his .540 slugging percentage leads the team. His career best OBP of .379 has been driven by a BABIP of .377, something that’s sure to normalize, as is his team leading HR/FB rate of 18.4%. With that said, if you’ve watched Saunders play, he’s looked the part of a dangerous middle-of-the-order hitter, and has been a key contributor all season, not just since the lineup was re-arranged. When you’re smoking the ball, the hits tend to drop in, which drives BABIP upwards. His line drive rate is top 3 on the team, and he’s doing a good job hitting to all fields — he’s hitting the ball either opposite field or up the middle 56.1% of the time, which paints a flattering picture of his approach. His BB and K rates are basically in line with his career numbers as well, which bodes well for future success. The biggest key for Saunders will be maintaining his health– after successfully skirting a tender hamstring early in the season, he’s on track to play the majority of the season for the first time since 2013. He managed only 87 total games in 2014-15 combined. Expected by many to be a fringe contributor at best, the left-handed hitting Saunders is instead slotting in consistently in the 4 and 5 spots in the order and has become a key contributor on a team that’s regaining its offensive mojo.

9.  J.A. Happ (SP) (12)

8. Aaron Sanchez (SP) (11)

7.  Roberto Osuna (RP) (9)

joshdonaldson

‘Let there be rain’

Stieb’s Stallions

6. Edwin Encarnacion (DH) (6)

5. Marco Estrada (SP) (10)

4. Russell Martin (C) (3)

3. Marcus Stroman (SP) (1)

2.  Jose Bautista (RF) (4)

1. Josh Donaldson (3B) (5)

Your new 25 Deep leader is the Bringer of Rain himself, reigning American League MVP Josh Donaldson. Though a fantastic defender and intelligent baserunner through thick and thin, Donaldson hasn’t totally been himself so far in 2016. With Tulowitzki and Bautista scuffling, Encarnacion doing dormant Edwin things (generally the case before he goes supernova, but still) and team run production dwindling, Donaldson found himself mired in a putrid mini-slump in the first half of May. After a strong April in which he slugged 8 home runs and looked every bit like the Donnie we all fell in love with last season, Donaldson fell off a cliff in the first two weeks of May, hitting below the Mendoza line and adding just a single home run, which accounted for his lone run driven in during that period. I’m not a big fan of RBI as an indicator of success at the plate, but coupled with the batting average and low OBP, Donaldson was undoubtedly having issues.

With Tulowitzki hitting the DL, Jose Bautista working to steady himself and Edwin’s heat check still gestating, Donaldson’s performance is more important now than ever. This team is going to lean on him, and they need him to produce.

You needn’t worry faithful fan– the MVP is back. After the Jays moved Bautista ahead of him in the order, Donaldson has righted the ship the past two weeks, with a .364 OBP and 4 home runs over that time frame. His peripherals this year are basically identical to last season, except for his batting average, which makes sense as his BABIP is down from .314 in 2015 to .270 this season, versus his career mark of .300. His line drive rate is actually up this year than last season, as is his fly ball rate, which suggests to me that he’s A) getting unlucky and hitting the ball right at people and B) lifting the ball too much. A staple of Donaldson last year was hard groundball hits down the third baseline and up the middle– a few of those should get that BABIP back to where it needs to be and ensure that the rain keeps us cool through the steamy Toronto summer.

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