Photo Credit: Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports
The Blue Jays have begun, under Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, to eschew the Stars And Scrubs philosophy of their predecessors somewhat, focusing this winter on adding depth and, at least in terms of those depth pieces, prioritizing floor over ceiling. This change, however, has not quite yet factored into the everyday talent on the club’s roster, as we can see from FanGraphs’ recent Positional Power Rankings series.
The Jays, as these rankings rightly identify, are supremely talented at many spots, but noticeably near the bottom rung at others. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground.
Is there enough superstar talent to carry some of very average players the club will feature? Is there enough upside on those lesser lights to render the projections FanGraphs has based these rankings on inadequate? I certainly think so — and based on the way they operated this off-season, the Jays do too.
But, just to be safe on that point, let’s take a closer look…
Catcher – MLB Rank: #4 – 3.5 Projected WAR
Russell Martin (3.4 WAR) is actually the second best individual catcher per these rankings (which, according to Dave Cameron’s introductory piece, “are a combination of the ZIPS and Steamer projections combined with manually curated playing time estimates”), but because the Jays have so little else at the position *COUGH*, they fall barely behind the Yankees (Brian McCann, Gary Sanchez), and the Dodgers (Yasmani Grandal, AJ Ellis). Of course, everybody is looking up at the Giants and Buster Posey (4.3 WAR).
“An injury last summer interfered with what was an excellent year at the plate, and it’s not like injuries become less common as players age,” explains Jeff Sullivan, “but it doesn’t get a lot better than Martin.”
That’s good for the Jays, but it’s… um… don’t get me wrong, Martin is terrific and productive and brings a tonne of intangibles (and pitch framing!) — and I truly believe that getting away from having to catch RA Dickey every fifth day, and the demonstrable impact it had on his hitting, will help him not-insignificantly — but we’re not exactly in a golden age of catching here.
First Base – MLB Rank: #21 – 1.2 Projected WAR
Edwin Encarnacion, despite being slated to get just 56 plate appearances at first, is projected to 0.3 WAR there, compared to 0.4 for Chris Colabello (245 PA) and 0.5 for Justin Smoak (399 PA). Hmm…
Thing is, I’m not sure that Colabello won’t earn himself a bigger share of the platoon with Smoak, and while sometimes I wonder if that’s maybe just sentimentality, August Fagerstrom sounds like he might think there really is something there, too.
“Colabello isn’t Bautista — a .411 BABIP and a contact rate that’s still frighteningly low make that easy to see — but Colabello joins a long line of hitters who came to Toronto in the last decade and experienced newfound success at the plate, and whether it’s right or not, it sure makes it easier to buy in,” he explains.
I’m also somewhat surprised that the Jays are ranked even this high — though the fact that there are some decent-enough teams below them (Rangers, Angels, Pirates, Nationals, Rays, Marlins) is maybe even weirder. First base ain’t what it used to be, I guess.
Second Base – MLB Rank: #23 – 1.4 Projected WAR
The projections really aren’t feeling the changes that Ryan Goins made late last season, for obvious reasons. That’s just not how those sorts of things work — they’re not going to be able to factor in whatever work he did in the off-season that certain types of Jays fans are so sure will finally pay dividends for him, either! So he comes out at 0.1 WAR, which even I think is probably a bit light.
Because that’s the thing about Goins: his bat takes away just about all the value that he produces with his glove — especially at second base, where the offensive bar is higher than at shortstop.
Still though — and, again, maybe this is just the natural optimism one falls prey to at the beginning of every season — the .238/.285/.330 he’s projected to is considerably below what his 2015 looked like. As much as I really don’t buy him as an everyday guy, I mean… come on. Andy Burns is projected to be just as valuable, over 35 plate appearances. Andy Burns!
Devon Travis (1.2 WAR), who they only have slated for 245 PA, is the only thing keeping this position from looking real grim for the Jays. At least as far as these projections are concerned. Pretty sure the team will be fine here, though. Or, at least, I was…
Goins’ “minor league track record suggests that his career path is probably something like Brendan Ryan’s,” explains Dave Cameron. “He’ll play good enough defense to remain rosterable for years to come, but the bat is very light, and the Jays will need to live with a pretty easy out at the bottom of the lineup when he’s on the field.”
Shortstop – MLB Rank: #3 – 3.7 Projected WAR
The projections actually have Troy Tulowitzki (3.5 WAR) as the fourth-best individual shortstop — which I point out mostly because I noted in the catching section above that Russell Martin was graded out slightly better than his rank. He’s slightly behind Andrelton Simmons, a little farther behind Francisco Lindor, and they’re all staring way up at Carlos Correa (4.8 WAR). So… give a chuckle next time Mike Wilner, as he did on Monday’s audio broadcast of the Jays’ Grapefruit League game, calls Tulo the best shortstop in baseball.
However, the projections are always going to give a lot of weight to a player’s most recent performance, and for Tulo, that wasn’t so good. But he could — dare I say, he should and will — bounce back this season, so maybe it’s not quite Correa’s time just yet. Then again, they have Tulo taking 560 plate appearances this year, which, sadly, at this point… um… I’ll probably have to take the under.
Plus, it’s a young man’s position. “Tulo and the injured Jhonny Peralta are the only starting shortstops who appear in the top half of these power rankings while being on the wrong side of 30,” writes Craig Edwards.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still way take him over Whatshisface who the Jays started last season with.
Third Base – MLB Rank: #1 – 6.2 Projected WAR
Manny Machado is a close second, and that is soooooooooo adorable.
Josh Donaldson is a fucking beast, and there’s really not a whole lot more to say about it. Owen Watson explains that “his projected WAR for 2016 is surpassed by only two players, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. While Donaldson might not challenge either player for best in baseball year in and year out, his 2015 was built on legitimate skills and improvements, and he’s likely to be an MVP candidate for the next few years.”
Left Field – MLB Rank: #24 – 0.8 Projected WAR
We all know the deal with this one, but I’ll let Neil Weinberg explain:
For a two and a half year run from 2012 to 2014, Michael Saunders looked like he was really putting it together in Seattle. He was an average corner outfielder being asked to play center field too often, but it was pretty clear that he had the talent to stick in the show. Unfortunately, he’s had a horrible run of health that’s prevented him from having the same impact over the last season and a half. If he can remain on the field and settle back into that player, the Blue Jays will have a solid compliment to their impressive core.
Let’s hope that’s what happens, because this dispiritingly low projection is basically hedging between what Saunders could be and the trash that the Jays might have to run out if he again has trouble staying on the field. His individual 0.8 WAR is over a projected 245 plate appearances. Among the rest of the current possibilities, it’s only Dalton Pompey (0.2 WAR, 175 PA) who FanGraphs’ systems expect to produce positive value. Darrell Ceciliani’s spring might suggest bigger things might be in store, but so did Gabe Gross’s once. It’s spring.
Ceciliani, Ezequiel Carrera and Domonic Brown all check in at -0.1 WAR over a smattering of PA, while Junior Lake somehow lands on exactly zero. Stay healthy, Michael!
Centre Field – MLB Rank: #13 – 2.8 Projected WAR
This is one of only two spots where the Blue Jays rank in the middle third among big league teams, and clearly it’s because the projections don’t see Kevin Pillar (2.6 WAR) being able to make the same kind of insane defensive contribution as he did last year. I tend to agree — his numbers were skewed a bit by all the high-degree-of-difficulty catches that he made — but maybe not to this extent. In 2015 the defensive component of his WAR (i.e. fielding runs plus positional adjustment) was 16.6, whereas these projections have it at just 6.6 for 2016. And it’s not like he’s not still going to have to cover territory that Jose Bautista and Michael Saunders aren’t going to be able to. So… maybe he’ll be just as good as we remember.
Hey, and maybe he’ll come into some kind of offensive explosion by hitting at the top of the lineup, like a whole lot of magic-thinking dopes seem to believe is in store!
But let’s be clear about something here: a 2.6 WAR projection is really good! And because of the fact that these rankings are by group, and two of the groups ahead of the Jays don’t have a CF projected as high as Pillar, he actually sneaks into the top 10 among individuals. That’s not as high as where he ranked in reality last year, but it’s a whole lot higher than I would ever have expected. Maybe I need to learn to just enjoy what we’ve got.
Right Field – MLB Rank: #6 – 3.9 Projected WAR
Mookie Betts, Jason Heyward, and Yasiel Puig are projected this year to be about as good as Jose Bautista (3.8 WAR), with George Springer not far behind. Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper are in another stratosphere. Miguel Sano could conceivably leap over Bautista over the next 365 days, too.
In other words, before he’s played one game under his next contract, Bautista might be projected to be something like the eighth-best right fielder in baseball. It’s obviously a strong position, and some of those guys haven’t established the kind of consistency that Jose has, so that’s really a worst-case scenario. And that still means he’ll be wildly valuable. But it’s a thought that ought to give pause to anyone full of rage over the possibility that the Jays might not re-sign him at any cost.
That said, it’s Jose Bautista. Franchise icon Jose Bautista. Author of The Great Bat Flip (and the home run that went with it). The player who single-handedly almost dragged the Blue Jays into Game Seven of the ALCS. So… I’ll be pretty OK with the Jays if they do it. He might already be the best player in franchise history, and if he stays beyond 2016, he’ll remove any remaining doubt. It’s just that for all the age-defying things that are talked about with him, uh… y’know.
Designated Hitter – MLB Rank: #1 – 3.1 Projected WAR
While it’s not quite Mike Trout-like, the Jays have a considerable lead over the rest of the league at DH, thanks, obviously, to Edwin Encarnacion.
“Since he’s taken off with the Blue Jays, he’s been the absolute picture of consistency,” writes Paul Swydan. “Over the past four years, Encarnacion’s wRC+ marks have been 150, 146, 151 and 150. It’s pretty hard to line up four seasons within a five point band like that. Over that time, he’s been the seventh-best hitter by wRC+ overall, and the six ahead of him haven’t matched him in consistency.”
Those six hitters are Trout, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Giancarlo Stanton, and Paul Goldschmidt.
The Red Sox rank second here, with David Ortiz checking in at 1.9 WAR to Edwin’s 2.7. And with Edwin having produced 4.5 wins last season, that gap could be even bigger. He’s just so, so, so good. (Which isn’t to say he’s any more deserving of a long-term contract than Bautista, mind you. I think Jose would quite likely be an awfully good DH himself.)
Starting Pitching – MLB Rank: #25 – 9.7 Projected WAR
We know, we know. The rotation is a weak spot for the Jays (though they’re still projected to be better than the Orioles and Royals!). But they’re better than this. Or at least they can be.
August Fagerstrom explains it more convincingly and succinctly than I could:
Personally, I’m buying this Blue Jays rotation, and would take the over on this ranking, and so would RA9-WAR, as Toronto’s 19-point positive gap between their ERA and FIP is the largest projected split in baseball. Dickey and Estrada both just get hammered by FIP, but peripherals aren’t their game, and the upside of Sanchez and Happ make this rotation compelling, one that, in my eyes, will earn a much higher spot on this list as the season goes on.
Bang on! Now they’ve just got to go out and do it. [Tugs on collar].
By the way, for those who are curious: if you replace JA Happ’s 1.8 WAR projection with the five wins David Price is projected for, the Jays jump to 12.9 WAR, and 16th place in these rankings. Then again, if the Jays kept Price, they’d almost certainly lose the 0.9 WAR projected to Marco Estrada (as well as the 1.3 WAR for Jesse Chavez – his total as both a SP and RP — though that’s offset somewhat by the fact that they’d still have Liam Hendriks and his 1.0 WAR).
Relief Pitching – MLB Rank: #12 – 3.3 Projected WAR
The Yankees (#1), Red Sox (#3), or even the Orioles (#6) they are not, but this is still not a bad ranking for the Jays — especially when you remember what their bullpen looked like at the start of 2015.
I could prattle on about individuals, but Craig Edwards sums things up pretty nicely:
Storen, Osuna, and Cecil make for a good top-three and Sanchez could always return to the pen if need be, but the rest of the pen is somewhat middling. … The team starts the year with a much better base at the end of games than last season, but middle relief leaves some questions that still need answering.
Hey, but they at least aren’t going to be bringing up warm bodies from A-ball in order to try to answer those questions, amiright???