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?
I know, I know. It’s already July 13th, and you, faithful Same Page reader, are sitting there wondering
‘Is this Mojito made with real mint?’, ‘Is that Squirtle on top of that Chipotle?‘ ‘Just where the hell is Dan Grant with the July edition of 25 Deep?!’
Well, I probably should have given you a heads up when last we met, but seeing as we’ve reached the designated midway point of the season (the 3/5 point actually, but whatever) I figured we’d do things a bit differently this month, and then get things back to normal come August.
Put down the Molotov cocktail and get back in your Jeep, you’ll still get your rankings (sort of). But rather than the normal monthly 25 man format, I think it’s pertinent to take in first half performances as a whole, and decide who’s gone and done good and who needs to hitch up their bootstraps down the stretch. This format will also let us examine players currently on the disabled list, something we normally eschew.
Instead of using the typical A-D grading system so typical of these kind of mid-season ratings, I thought I’d employ my inner teacher and change things up a bit. You see, the A-D system is for grading completed work, but educators use a different system when we’re talking about learning skills. Things like organization, responsibility, initiative and so forth, are assessed using a different hierarchical system. The following five levels become the standard:
Excellent: Has exceeded expectations. Above grade level.
Good: Has performed up to expectations, still has room for improvement. Has achieved grade level.
Satisfactory: Approaches expectations. Shows signs of achieving grade level in near future.
Needs Improvement: Has not achieved expectations. Well below grade level.
Incomplete: Unable to assess.
Pretty standard no? I mean it is used to assess children, generally speaking. Let’s go in reverse order. We’ll examine each and every player on the 40 man roster who spent any time with the big club this season.
RP Dustin Antolin, 1B Chris Colabello, RP Aaron Loup, RP Franklin Morales, RP Bo Schultz
Injuries are the name of the game here. The lefty Morales was signed to an unguaranteed 2 million dollar deal after Loup was injured, and appeared in only two games himself before succumbing to shoulder fatigue. He spent so much time on the disabled list that his contract became fully guaranteed, while he has since been transferred to the 60 day DL, with no strict timeline for his return. He’s been on a minor league rehab assignment since June 23rd, and those are limited to 30 days, so we’re getting close to decision-making time. Franklin, you might be a nice guy, and you’ve got two World Series rings in the past three seasons, but you’re only getting an incomplete because it’s 2016 and we can’t write ‘remedial’ on report cards. Nor should we for kids — ineffective left handed pitchers are a different story.
For his part, Bo Schultz has been decent in 5 appearances since he returned from off-season hip surgery, striking out 6 in 7.1 innings and allowing a pair of runs. Loup has been equally bad in limited time, appearing in 9 games and allowing lefties (his purview) to hit .375 off him, with a pair of homers. However, the sample size for both is so minuscule that they’ve landed here in old ‘cannot assess’ category, because it’s not really fair to pin them anywhere when they’ve had so little time. Ditto for Antolin, who appeared in just one game and got shelled. Even in snapshots, Loup and Schultz have looked a lot like the 2015 versions of themselves, meaning that Toronto needs to be on the hunt for some bullpen assistance.
Colabello (poor Bing Bong) is the forgotten man for a Toronto team that really hasn’t missed him. It’ll be interesting to see what role he has (if any) when he’s eligible to return from his suspension on July 23rd. He was egregiously bad in 10 games this season before his suspension was announced, but the fact that he knew about the positive test and was going through the appeals process is something that had to weigh heavy on his mind, and could have had an impact on his performance. Yes I know that’s the kind unquantifiable mumbo jumbo usually eschewed by the sabermetric community, but so’s your mom.
RP Brett Cecil, IF Ryan Goins, RP Drew Storen, RP Ryan Tepera, RP Pat Venditte
There’s an argument to be made that says the hard-throwing Ryan Tepera and the ambidextrous Pat Venditte belong in the prior category, given that both have actually appeared in less games than Aaron Loup. But while Loup was working his way back from an injury, and has a half-decent track record to fall back on, neither Tepera or Venditte can make any such excuse. Both have pitched to WHIP’s over 1.70, both have been up and down multiple times, as they have team options. Worse, both are walking guys, with Tepera sporting a 5.2 BB/9 and Venditte a 4.2. If you’re a reliever, particularly one asked to come in lower leverage situations like Tepera and Venditte typically are, you’ve gotta throw damn strikes. With the return of Loup and Schultz, the acquisition of Jason Grilli and the emergence of Joe Biagini, both guys are rapidly sliding down the organizational ladder. You might see them again if injuries or an extra arm is needed, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Speaking of struggling relievers, Brett Cecil just returned from injury and while he certainly needs to get better, I’ll reserve final judgement on him until the end of the season. He was godawful in April, but he’s been a slow starter the past two seasons. It was revealed before he went on the DL that he may have pitching injured for some time, which rendered his normally outstanding breaking ball almost completely ineffective. I dove deep on him here, if you’re interested. Needless to say, the Jays need him to find his form.
Ryan Goins has been a huge disappointment as well. Even though I preached regression from 2015, I fully expected him to hold the fort for Devon Travis and then earn the backup playing time spelling both Travis and Troy Tulowitzki down the stretch. Instead he’s slashed a feeble .176/.216/.308 and managed a WRC+ of just 32, which ranks him 291st out of 293 major league players with at least 150 plate appearances. He’s on the disabled list currently after injuring his forearm pitching in the recent 19 inning marathon game versus Cleveland. Yes, he’s a glove guy, but you have to be able to at least represent the whisper of a threat at the plate. With the way Darwin Barney is playing, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely Goins will have a roster spot for the Blue Jays stretch run, except as a September call-up.
Goins would be the biggest disappointment for Toronto but for the man named Drew Storen. FIP (4.58) and xFIP (4.28) combined with a .347 BABIP suggest that ol’ Drew is getting a bit unlucky so far as a Blue Jay, what with his 5.63 ERA and vitriol raining from the stands. There’s a school of thinking that says ‘Hey, he’s appeared in 36 games for Toronto and in 26 of them he’s turned in a clean score sheet, is that really so bad?’ and ‘well, his peripherals say he should get at least a bit better’. However, there’s an alternative school that says in 8 of the 10 games he was scored on he allowed multiple runs, and that his WHIP is 1.50 because in only 8 out of 36 games (22%!) has he gotten through his appearance without allowing at least one hit or walk. There’s also the fact that he (along with Cecil, for that matter) was meant to be a stopper at the back end of the bullpen, so a 72% clean sheet rate isn’t nearly good enough, errant baserunners aside. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle; Storen hasn’t been good, but he certainly hasn’t been as bad as the reputation he’s earned, and our expectations on him were probably a bit unrealistic, given his dichotomous track record of both success and implosion. Still, it would be a boon for Toronto if he could find himself; 11 of his past 13 appearances have been of the scoreless variety, and other than 4 run blow-up at Coors Field, he’s actually been pretty solid the last month or so. Still, if his season ended today, you can bet Drew Storen would be disappointed — that feeling goes double for Jays fans.
IF Andy Burns, OF Jose Bautista, OF Darrell Ceciliani, RP Gavin Floyd, RP Chad Girodo, SP Drew Hutchison, OF Junior Lake, OF Kevin Pillar, 1B Justin Smoak, SP Marcus Stroman, C Josh Thole
What you see here is a few bigger names surrounded by a ton of role players. Let’s look at the little guys first.
Burns, Ceciliani, Girodo, Lake and Thole are here and will likely stay here. They’ve all done pretty much exactly what they’ve been asked to do, which is fill in and not screw up immensely. Thole has been maligned for his terrible hitting, but we always knew he was a terrible hitter. Lake has taken some interesting routes in the outfield, but he’s actually made the most of his limited plate appearances, currently sporting a .391 OBP in 23 PA’s spread over 13 games. Burns plays third base… and has done that. Girodo hasn’t been a tire fire out of the bullpen, and while he doesn’t strike anyone out, he also doesn’t walk anybody and has let the Jays excellent defense take of things for him (mostly). And Ceciliani played so little that you could probably give him an incomplete, but that’s thing the thing: he’s done exactly what he was supposed to do, as all these guys have. They’re depth, and they’ve served as such.
Drew Hutchison has also been relegated to a depth piece so far this season, and has performed in his role admirably. Better than a Triple A player, the still only 25 year old Hutchison pitched reasonably well in two spot starts, with his tiny sample size being manipulated by a poor relief appearance in his only other game with the big club. He still has the ability to strike guys out (12 in 11 innings over his two starts) but still gives up too many long balls (4 in those same two starts). With Aaron Sanchez still slated to move back to the bullpen, we might be seeing a lot more of Hutch before long, unless the Jays acquire outside help.
Justin Smoak had a red hot May and made fans forget all about Chris Colabello, but has hit well under the Mendoza line in both June and so far in July. He’s been so bad recently that the team has taken to given Josh Donaldson and Devon Travis days at DH, so that Edwin Encarnacion can field first and Darwin Barney can stay in the lineup while he rides the pine. He’s been solid defensively and had an OK first half overall, but unless there’s improvement soon, he’s be relegated to bench bat/defensive replacement status.
I thought about bumping Kevin Pillar up to the next level, as he’s been worth 2.2 WAR already and is about as fun to watch as anyone on the team. But he’s achieved the lions share of that with his glove, and other than a hot stretch at the end of May and beginning of June, he’s been wildly inconsistent at the plate. He’s striking out at a higher rate than last season and his wOBA and WRC+ are down as well. I’m not saying he hasn’t had a good first half — he’s been fine. But a bit more consistency at the plate would make him a hell of a lot more dangerous of a player. He’s been hot so far in July, slashing .361/.400/.389 with a WRC+ of 115, so here’s hoping the All-Star break didn’t throw water on the fire.
Jose Bautista’s grade is an easy one to give. He was pretty good but not great (for him) before his injury, and then, well, he got injured. He’s supposedly due back around the end of July, but still hasn’t started running yet, and by the time he’s back he’ll have missed roughly 50 games. Given the nature of his injury (turf toe) and his declining defensive numbers (-7 DRS already in 2016), plus the solid play of Ezequiel Carrera, you wonder if he might see some time at first base or designated hitter upon his return.
Marcus Stroman seems to have righted the ship after a difficult seven start stretch from May 17th to June 26th. Two solid starts in July revealed the Stroman of old, and the work he put in simplifying his hand position and focusing on a more narrow array of pitches was obvious in excellent starts versus Cleveland and Kansas City. With that said, 7 starts is not an insignificant portion of the season for a starting pitcher and the expectations on Stroman this season were sky high. With the rest of the Toronto rotation performing so well in the first half, Stroman was given a safety net. He might not be as lucky over the final 70 games, and Toronto will need him to be at his very best.
Joe Biagini RP, Jesse Chavez RP, R.A. Dickey SP, Jason Grilli RP, J.A. Happ SP, Russell Martin C, Devon Travis 2B, Troy Tulowitzki SS
Biagini, Grilli and Chavez (at least since mid-May) have been godsends for a bullpen that badly needed some consistency. We’re running a tad long here so I’ll keep it brief, but Biagini has done more than you could have hoped for out of a rookie rule 5 pick, Grilli has rediscovered his mojo since joining Toronto, and Chavez, after a rocky start, has been both consistent and effective out of the Toronto bullpen.
R.A Dickey’s inclusion here might leave some fans scratching their heads, but remember, this is about expectations — Dickey has been exactly what we knew he’d be. His 116.2 innings pitched are second on the team, and his 3.93 ERA has outperformed his FIP (5.06) and xFIP (4.62). His peripherals are basically identical to last season, when his second half ranked him among the best pitchers in the American League, and his HR/FB rate has actually spiked to 16.1%, suggesting his numbers could get even better moving forward. Dickey haters everywhere — get stuffed.
The same confused souls might be wondering how J.A. Happ belongs in this category and not the next one, but while he’s been very good, the biggest difference between him and Dickey has been run support. Happ has received 6.67 runs per game for Toronto, the second best mark in the big leagues. Dickey has received just 3.63 from the same offense, putting him 83rd out of 96 qualified pitchers. Yes, Happ’s peripherals are slightly better and his ERA and xFIP are about a half run better, too. But the point is, the divide is not so wide as one might think upon first glance, particularly if one were to be a traditionalist and look at Happ’s 12-3 won loss record, versus Dickey’s mark of 7-9, which is why we should never take a pitchers wins and losses (which are team stats, really) at face value.
Martin, Travis and Tulowitzki all have similar stories — slow starts, be they because of injury or who knows what — followed by white-hot bats since the end of May. Throughout, Martin and Tulo have provided a steadying hand on defense, never allowing their struggles at the plate to translate to the field. Tulowitzki in particular has been raking since he returned from the disabled list, hitting .313/.370/.598 with 7 homers in 20 games since coming back. Travis understandably scuffled in his first couple weeks back from off-season shoulder surgery, but he’s been a breath of fresh air over the past four weeks. With Bautista injured, these three have been a superb complement to the stalwarts that are carrying the Toronto offense, and could soon find themselves moving up a grade.
Darwin Barney IF, Ezequiel Carrera OF, Josh Donaldson 3B, Edwin Encarnacion 1B/DH, Marco Estrada SP, Roberto Osuna RP, Aaron Sanchez SP, Michael Saunders LF
Remember, this list is about expectations, which is why you find it populated by souls such as Darwin Barney and Ezequiel Carrera. I personally will eat some crow as far as Zeke is concerned — I panned his inclusion on the roster over Darrell Ceciliani after spring training, citing his anemic power and suspect defense from a season ago. Imagine my surprise that at the All-Star break, he’d be leading off for a team currently holding down a playoff spot, and slashing .281/.370/.407 with a .342 wOBA and a 111 WRC+. I mean, it boggles the mind! I mean, he may just be a late bloomer, but at 29, I think we all thought we knew what Ezequiel Carrera was as a player. He’d flashed hints of this kind of production at various minor league stops in his career, but whether it was a lack of opportunity or a lack of talent, he never produced at the major league level. He’s been worth 1.4 WAR so far for Toronto in 2016, and even if his season ended tomorrow, I’d declare it a roaring success. The same goes for Darwin Barney.
An afterthought, acquired to fill in last September when both Travis and Tulowitzki were injured, Barney was picked up so late in the season he couldn’t be included on the playoff roster. This year, he’s been a wonderful find, given the struggles of Ryan Goins, and a variety of injuries to the Blue Jays infield. His .296/.345/.392 slash line is probably unsustainable, as it’s been built on the back of a .338 BABIP, well above his career mark of .275, but Barney doesn’t need to be a .300 hitter to be valuable for Toronto. His real value is with his glove, and his ability to play third, short and second base when called upon. He’s already been worth 2 DRS this season in limited innings, and his UZR/150 of 28.3 is revelatory of just how excellent his range really is. He’s earned this grade and a spot on the roster for the forseeable future.
Just quickly: Roberto Osuna is really friggin’ good. 48 K’s in 39.1 innings, an 0.96 WHIP and he’s still only 21 years old. Nothing to see here — just Bobby Bear, mauling fools. That’ll be all.
Lastly, Toronto boasts five All-Stars this season, and the most surprising thing might be that none of them are named Bautista, Tulowitzki or Martin. That trio boast 15 All-Star selections among them. Instead, the Jays had Marco Estrada, Aaron Sanchez and Michael Saunders become first time selections, while Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion each made their third appearance.
In a season that could easily have been derailed by injuries and the failings of the bullpen, the Blue Jays have played to a 51-40 record largely because of these five men. Estrada has pitched through back pain and been the steadying force the rotation badly needed. Sanchez has begun to realize his enormous potential and then some; Toronto is going to struggle to replace his production if they follow through with their plan to send him to the bullpen. Saunders has finally been healthy enough to unleash his immense talent at the plate, and every day makes the non-Jay Bruce trade look like a blessing in disguise. Encarnacion has been a run producing machine, and instead of wondering whether or not he’ll be a Jay in 2017, we all just need to enjoy watching him take the parrot for a walk.
And Donaldson? Donnie? The Bringer of Rain?
He’s the damn MVP of the American League. He’s been great. Everybody thinks so. See look: