The Shapkins Defender – 6 to 8 Breakout Men

Welcome to The Shapkins Defender, where I inhale your toxic screeds and spit out the fresh oxygen of optimism, like a tree that kind of understands WAR. (Just don’t ask me to explain it.)

Well, the offseason is winding down. The coldest days of the year are now behind us and most of the free agents have signed. With the Reds signing Castellanos today, that leaves only three names from MLBTR’s Top 50 still without a home. And those three names are from the bottom of the list, with #37 Yasiel Puig, #41 Brock Holt and #49 Pedro Strop being the remaining wanderers. So, though there might still be a trade or two, that means the business of the offseason is mostly done and us fans can look forward to pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, which is barely over two weeks away now.

And that also means it’s time for a classic baseball tradition: making futile attempts to predict the future that will look very foolish almost immediately. Your favourite source of baseball charts and graphs will soon reveal projections about the upcoming season, from FanGraphs to 538 and Baseball Prospectus and on and on. One bookie has already put out their over-unders for the year, placing the Jays at 75.5. I suspect that, once the other projections come out, they will be comparable.

So, I want to let my mind wander into the best-case scenario, just for a moment. As much as I’m optimistic about the general trajectory of the franchise, it’s not my wont to put specific expectations on things. Ever since I went and saw The Patriot (2000) because it was from the same screenwriter as Saving Private Ryan (1998), I’ve learned that getting overly excited about things usually just leads to disappointment. (Mel Gibson literally uses the American flag as a weapon when fighting against the British, a subtle piece of symbolism that The Simpsons made fun of a year earlier, in an episode guest-starring Mel Gibson!) And I think that most Blue Jays fans have tempered their expectations after three straight losing seasons, including the dismal 67-win performance of 2019. But there’s one team in very recent memory that can give us hope of a quick turnaround, which is the 2018 Atlanta Braves. Let’s take a closer look.

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The win totals for Atlanta from 2014 to 2017 were 79, 67, 68 and 72. Because, you know, they were rebuilding. And going into 2018, it was expected that they would start to come out of their rebuild, but only mildly. Bleacher Report and 538 projected that they would win 74 and 75 games, respectively, right around where the Blue Jays will probably be placed in most projections for 2020. 

By now, you probably know that the Braves smashed through those projections, winning 90 games and finishing first in the NL East. 2019, they took another step forward, topping the division again with 97 wins.

Before moving on, it’s worth mentioning that, should the Jays add 18 wins from their previous year’s total, that would still only take them to 85. And even if they somehow got to 90, that might not even be enough to make the playoffs. The Cleveland baseballers won 93 games last year and didn’t even get a wild card game out of it. But I don’t think any of us will complain too much if the Jays win around 90 games and just barely miss the playoffs in 2020. Heartbreaking though it might be, I would certainly take that over a mediocre 75-win slog.

So, how do you take a leap forward like this? To put it simply, you have to have more good players. According to FanGraphs, the 2017 Braves had only three players that accumulated 2.0 fWAR or higher. In 2018, that number was 9, three times as many. To compare the 2017 Braves to the 2018 version, well, it’s fucking chart time, folks.

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So, let’s focus on the six guys on the bottom of the chart, the guys who weren’t significant contributors in 2017. As you can see by the ages, two of them were veterans who had bounce-back seasons (Markakis and Sánchez). The other four, however, were between the ages of 20 and 26. Young guys breaking out and transitioning from prospects into legit big-leaguers. Atlanta also had a couple of guys just below the 2.0 fWAR threshold I’ve set in 2018, Dansby Swanson and Sean Newcomb, who put up 1.9 and 1.6 fWAR, respectively. They were also 24 and 25 during 2018, which also puts them in that mould of prospects delivering on potential.

The 2019 Blue Jays had four guys reach the 2.0 fWAR mark. But two of them, Stroman and Sogard, are gone already. That leaves only Biggio and Thornton. So, can the Jays find 6 to 8 of those breakout guys in 2020 to get into that range of having 8 to 10 solid regulars? That’s quite a tall ask and not one that I’m necessarily going to hold my breath for. But it is theoretically possible, in that the Blue Jays 40-man roster is currently composed of 13 guys that are 28 or older, meaning 27 of them are younger. A handful of those 27 will turn 28 midseason, but still, that’s a lot of youth. And there are also a few guys that aren’t on the roster yet but could contribute this year, the most obvious one being Nate Pearson.

Who are the candidates to be those 6 to 8 guys? There were a handful of Jays that were between 1 and 2 fWAR last year, such as Jansen, McGuire, Gurriel, Bichette and Teoscar. So, you’d need some of those guys to break out and provide something more substantial, the same way that Albies, Camargo and Folty did for Atlanta in 2018. Bichette should be able to do it easily just by playing a full season.

There’s also the need for Vladdy to take a step forward after FanGraphs pegged his rookie season as being worth just 0.4 fWAR. Then there’s the cluster of starting pitchers who only pitched a few innings at the big league level last year, such as Reid-Foley, Zeuch, Borucki and Kay. Could one or two of them take a step forward? And there’s another blob of position players who have had a few cups of coffee at the big league level without securing a full-time spot, such as Fisher, Alford, Tellez and McKinney. There are veterans who could bounce back, such as Grichuk and Shoemaker, the same way the Braves got contributions from Markakis and Aníbal Sánchez. And, of course, there are the free-agent additions, such as Ryu, Roark and Shaw.

Is this a realistic thing to dream about? Let’s go back to those 538 projections for a second and compare them to how things actually ended up playing out in 2018. Since we’re talking about a Blue Jays team that’s going to be projected to win around 75 games, I’ll focus on the teams projected to have a win total in the 70s.

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At the bottom of this chart, the teams that fell short of projections, you’ll mostly see teams that were at the beginning of their rebuilding processes. Teams like the Orioles and Royals are still expected to be bad now, two years later. At the top, the teams that beat their projections, are the teams that were ready to push forward from a rebuild that had already been going on for a while, teams that stayed good in 2019 and are expected to be good again in 2020: Oakland, Atlanta, Tampa. This, I think, is perfectly logical. If you’re a team that’s been rebuilding, you should have lots of guys with potential.

But since so many prospects don’t deliver on their potential, the predictions will be skeptical until the players prove themselves. Those teams that fell short of even modest projections, such as Baltimore and KC, they didn’t even have those guys with potential. This should be somewhat encouraging to Toronto fans, I think. The Blue Jays are now in a similar position to where those teams were, having loaded up on young talent and waiting for them to deliver on their potential. The projection models won’t predict it to happen this year. But they’ve been wrong before.

Anyway, I can’t definitively resolve this now. That’s what the 2020 season will be for. Maybe it will go the way the projections say and the Jays will win around 75 games. But I don’t think 90 is out of the question, unlikely as it might be. If you’ve watched baseball for any appreciable amount of time, you know how unpredictable it can be. Unlikely things happen all the time, as they did in Atlanta just two years ago. That’s something that you could dream on, if you wanted to. And it’s something to keep in mind as all these numbers start rolling out over the next few weeks.

If you have a beef, send your hot takes, diatribes, harangues, tirades and jeremiads to me at [email protected] or @darraghfilm on Twitter, or just leave a comment below.