Blue Jays in 2018: Stronger Than You Think?

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 25: The Toronto Blue Jays high five each other after a victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on September 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 25: The Toronto Blue Jays high five each other after a victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on September 25, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images) /

As they currently stand, the 2018 Blue Jays roster might be stronger than people realize.

Sadly, Blue Jays’ fans’ and writers’ thoughts have already turned to the 2018 season.  There has already been discussion of the team’s greatest needs, and the options available for the 2017-18 offseason.

One area of considerable debate is whether the Jays can realistically expect to contend for a playoff spot in 2018.  Some writers believe that this is an unfair expectation, and that the Jays should “hit the reset button“.   Others, like this writer, believe otherwise.

Obviously, the “real” answer is that there is a range of potential outcomes.  If the Jays experience the bad injury luck in 2018 that they did in 2017, their playoff chances will be slim.  But if they experience the very good luck from 2016, their chances would be far better.

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Which brings me to a thought experiment.

Based on the last few years, it should take 86-90 wins to secure the second AL wildcard.  Let’s say 89 – the number of Jays wins in 2016.  Given that a team made up of replacement-level players would be estimated to earn 48 wins, this would mean that the 2018 Jays would need an aggregate team WAR of 41.  (As an aside, in 2016 the Jays earned a WAR of 42.7, of which 18.9 came from pitchers and 23.8 from position players).

So let’s start with the position players.  And, for the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume no significant (i.e. non-bench) trades or free agent signings – we are looking only at the player assets we currently have in-house.

Here is the chart.

Now, let me summarize my logic.

I estimate Russell Martin‘s 2018 WAR of 2.7 by taking his 2017 stats and pro-rating them for 500 PAs.  Note that Russ averaged over 490 PAs from 2012-16,and that his average WAR was 3.3 over those 5 years.  I appreciate that he is aging, but a 104 wRC+ should be sustainable in 2018.

Similarly, I assume that Justin Smoak can maintain his 2017 pace over 600 PAs in 2018. I assume that Devon Travis can maintain the pace that he did in 2016, but only over 450 PAs.

As with Russ and Justin, I assume that Josh Donaldson can maintain his 2017 pace over 2018.  This is likely conservative, as Josh’s second half wRC+ of 157 was substantially better than his first half of 132 (and the 157 is closer to 2015 and 2016). I also assume that a healthy-ish Troy Tulowitzki can return to 2016 production levels, but only for 450 PAs.  Remember that Tulo had 544 PAs in 2016 and 534 in 2015.

Consistent with my thought exercise, I assume that the Jays do not acquire a left fielder, and that they play Ezequiel Carrera in that position for all of 2018.  I estimate e-Zeke’s 2018 WAR by extrapolating his 2017 numbers.  Seems fair, as his 106 wRC+ was a career high, but his -12 UZR/150 in the outfield was a career low.

My estimate of 1.9 for Kevin Pillar is based on extrapolating his 2017 figures.  Possibly conservative, as his 2017 UZR/150 of 9.3 is less than half his average from 2015 and 2016.  A return to 2016 defense levels would add ~ 1.5 WAR to Pillar in 2018.

I assume Teoscar Hernandez will play right field all year.  I further assume that he will be an above-average fielder, due to his speed and strong arm (he would be a CF playing RF), and that he will be a league-average 100 wRC+ hitter (so far in September, he is 123).  That, combined with his baserunning skills, should make him an average 2.0 WAR player in 2018. And finally, I assume that Kendrys Morales achieves a 1.4 WAR, the average of what he did in 2015 and 2016.

The Jays’ 2017 bench had a combined -3.3 WAR, largely due to Darwin Barney‘s -0.8, Miguel Montero‘s -0.7, Luke Maile‘s -0.6 and Chris Coghlan‘s -0.5.  I assume that the Jays can increase this figure to -1, as Montero, Maile and Coghlan will no longer the with the team and Barney (if he returns) will return to something closer to the +0.7 WAR he averaged from 2012-16.

Based on these assumptions, the 2018 Jays would earn 22.0 WAR from position players, or roughly the same as they did in 2016 (22.4).

Regarding pitching: in 2016, the Jays earned 18.9 WAR from their pitching staff (starters + relievers).  In 2017, so far, they have earned 15.7.  Say 16 by the end of the season.  But included in that 15.7 was a combined -2.0 from Jason Grilli, Nick Tepesch, Mike Bolsinger, Mat Latos and J.P. Howell, none of whom are expected to be with the Jays in 2018.  If you assume improvement (and additional innings) from the team’s young relievers to compensate for the loss of Joe Smith‘s 1.0 WAR, that a healthy Aaron Sanchez can produce more than Francisco Liriano‘s 2017 WAR of 0.8, and that Stroman/Happ/Estrada can produce at 2017 levels, then a 2018 WAR of ~19 from the pitching staff is not an unreasonable expectation.

So on this basis, the 2018 Jays could easily be in the 89 win range.  Of course, as Shapiro said, this is only one of a large range out possible outcomes.  Horrible injury luck, Bautista-like regression, or just plain old Pythagorean punishment could bring the Jays to their knees.  But also remember that the experiment above assumed no free agent signings or trades.  If you add a Stanton or Kinsler or Ozuna via trade, or sign an Otani (insert wishful whimper here), that 89 wins starts to look a lot more possible.  Ditto if a Danny Jansen or Anthony Alford forces his way onto the team in spring training, or if another player has a Smoak-style breakout.

Next: Utility IF: Barney or Goins in 2018?

The bottom line

The important thing about a range our outcomes is the probability distribution.  If the Jays believe that the scenarios where the team is competitive are low-probability, they likely make different decisions in the offseason than if they believe that the jays have a legitimate chance to be a playoff contender.  With respect to Yogi, I believe that the near (2018) future is brighter than most believe.