Blue Jays could ‘what if’ their way into being competitive

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 26: Randal Grichuk #15 of the Toronto Blue Jays is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning during MLB game action against the Houston Astros at Rogers Centre on September 26, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 26: Randal Grichuk #15 of the Toronto Blue Jays is congratulated by teammates in the dugout after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning during MLB game action against the Houston Astros at Rogers Centre on September 26, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

While it’s unlikely that the Blue Jays will be contenders for a year or two, we’ve watched a few other young franchises make an earlier splash than expected.

The 2019 season will be a rebuilding year for the Toronto Blue Jays, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of reasons to tune in and watch this talented young team.

I expect there will be painful periods during the 162 game schedule, as there would be with any team made up of largely young players who are getting their feet wet at the highest level. However, I also believe that the Blue Jays will be a lot better than people expect, and I wrote about why I think the record will improve last month as well. I’m not suggesting that they’re going to be contenders for the World Series by any means, but if everything goes right it wouldn’t surprise me if they were “competitive” as soon as next year.

Let’s start by taking a look at the rotation, which was expected to be a strength of the 2018 version of this team and ended up being a disaster. Marcus Stroman started the year with shoulder issues and battled horrific blister problems later in the campaign, and was largely a disappointment. Aaron Sanchez managed to make 20 starts, but spent far too much time on the disabled list and never got the rhythm going that we saw in 2016. J.A. Happ was great until he was traded to New York, and Marco Estrada and Jaime Garcia were big let downs.

In 2019, the Blue Jays will return Stroman and Sanchez for another go, despite the rumours of potential trade interest in both young right-handers. I don’t want to jinx either of the talented pitchers, but I feel like the upcoming season couldn’t go a lot worse for either guy, especially Stroman. They are both far too talented to pitch as poorly as they did last year when they were on the mound, and I expect that the Blue Jays will receive a better contribution at the top of their rotation.

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Beyond those two are a starting group that will probably end with Ryan Borucki, Matt Shoemaker, and Clayton Richard, at least to begin the season. Borucki was a nice surprise over 17 starts last year and will be given every opportunity to become a rotation mainstay going forward. Shoemaker has a lot of potential if he can keep his forearm issues in check, and Richard should be fine to round out the rotation. There’s potential for help at the back of the rotation from youthful options like Sean Reid-Foley, Thomas Pannone, Trent Thornton and more as well, so I expect the starters to be an area of improvement.

As far as the lineup goes, honestly, I expect progression here regardless of how things shakes down. I’m optimistic that Randal Grichuk turned a corner after early struggles last year, and will be at least that improved version of himself in 2019, if not even better. I’m confident that guys like Justin Smoak, Kendrys Morales, and Kevin Pillar will be as good or better than they were a year ago too. But what really excites me is the potential for improvement from some of the newcomers.

I’m not saying that Danny Jansen is going to be an All-Star next season, but does anyone think he’s going to be worse than the .194/.338/.325 slash line that Russell Martin produced last year? I’m confident the now former Blue Jay is better than his numbers were last season, but I’m even more confident that Jansen and Reese McGuire can make a significant improvement in the catching department, even if they take time to adjust in their first full season.

I’m extremely excited to see what a full campaign from Loures Gurriel Jr. will bring, and if he can translate his exceptional tools into being a plus-shortstop at the big league level. He was a little shaky at short last season at times, but it looks like he’ll be given the everyday opportunity to start the season, and he’s got the talent to make it work. While Aledmys Diaz was surprisingly solid last year, Gurriel has the potential to blow him out of the water.

Both Devon Travis and Teoscar Hernandez were varying levels of disappointing last year, and both men feel like they’re too talented to repeat their 2018 numbers. Hernandez flashed offensive potential for streaks, but otherwise his season was highlighted by his defensive woes. Travis was finally healthy for a whole season, but he was a far cry from the .300 hitter he had been in the past. It’s not a big step to expect improvement from both of them.

Last but not least, we know that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is coming in 2019, even if he’s likely to start the season in Triple-A for a few weeks. I think it’s safe to say we’re all putting arguably too big of expectations on the kid, but it’s hard not to when watching his other-worldly talent. Even if he’s not as good in his rookie season as we’re all hoping he will be, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be a significant improvement from the combined efforts of Josh Donaldson (hurt for all but 36 games), Yangervis Solarte, Diaz, Martin, and the revolving door from the hot corner in 2018.

By now you’re probably thinking that I’ve forgotten two things: a) The Red Sox and Yankees, and b) the bullpen. On the latter point, I’m not even going to bother talking about what could come of it at this point, mostly because I don’t think we have a clear picture of who will be in the ‘pen, and it’s a crapshoot on an annual basis anyway. As for the Red Sox and Yankees, I’m fully aware that each of them will be playoff contenders for probably at least the next five years, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Jays can’t be “competitive” at the same time.

However, that’s still leaves a second Wild Card spot for the Blue Jays to pursue, and in 2019 there really aren’t that many contenders. In fact, if you take a look at the rest of the American League and assume that Houston and Cleveland win their divisions again, there are really only a handful of teams that are planning on competing next season. Last year’s Wild Card winners in the Oakland A’s, and then the Tampa Bay Rays and the L.A. Angels. If I’m being generous, maybe you include the Twins too.

Again, it’s not a mountain that I expect the Blue Jays to climb this quickly in their rebuild, but it’s not a stretch to expect significant improvement from the rotation, especially if they’re healthy. What if Stroman and Sanchez return to the height of their game? What if Borucki and Reid-Foley keep improving, and Shoemaker produces and stays healthy all year? I’m also willing to bet nearly anything I have that the offence is improved, even if it’s only marginally in year one of the rebuild. What if Vlad Jr. is as good as the projections think he’ll be? What if Gurriel Jr. and Jansen solidify their jobs right away, and Hernandez, Grichuk, and Travis are all the best versions of themselves?

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There are a ton of ‘what ifs’, but when you put it together with a shaky field of contenders it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Blue Jays could field a team that at least makes things interesting. I’ve said it in the past and I’ll say it again, I think it’ll be 2021 before the Blue Jays return to the playoff picture, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be a lot better than most people are expecting next year. If enough of those ‘what ifs’ go the right way, I predict it’ll happen sooner than later.