Toronto Blue Jays: Early Prognosis on their Playoff Chances
By Charles Kime
Just 28 games into the season, the Blue Jays have scrapped their way to a 14-14 record, three games behind the surprising Boston Red Sox in the AL East. Despite some early-season adversity, the prognosis on the team’s playoff chances still looks very good. Baseball Reference currently gives them a 27.5% chance to make the postseason, while FanGraphs gives them a 44.5% chance.
While some of the early season injuries and struggles have exposed the flaws with this team at the major league level, a number of positives have also emerged: quality starts by Hyun Jin Ryu, Steven Matz, and Robbie Ray, shutdown closer performances with seven saves, and hot starts at the plate for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Randal Grichuk. 2B/SS Marcus Semien looks like a very solid addition, and the team defence has improved overall.
The injury bug delayed the season debut of outfielder George Springer, who signed the largest-ever Jays’ contract this past offseason for six years at $150 million. Likewise for top prospect Nate Pearson, who is seen as a key piece of the starting rotation and is currently ranked the 14th best prospect in MLB by Baseball America. Kirby Yates went under the knife for season-ending Tommy John surgery on March 24th, shutting him down for the year.
More recently, last season’s Silver Slugger Award winner RF/DH Teoscar Hernandez tested positive for COVID-19 and spent some time on the injured list and key bullpen pieces Julian Merryweather (left hip irritation) and David Phelps (hit on the back by a 107 mph comebacker off the bat of Yankee Clint Frazier) were hurt as well. Off-season acquisition Tyler Chatwood spent time on the 10-day IL as well with right tricep inflammation but has since returned.
Let’s not forget the team is also the only MLB franchise not playing in their home ballpark right now, with the home opener at the familiar confines of their newly renovated spring training facility in Dunedin, and a potential move back to Sahlen Field in Buffalo later this summer. The Blue Jays currently plan to spend their first three homestands of the season, through May 24, at Dunedin’s TD Ballpark,
So despite the early adversity, what are five take always that could lead us to a positive prognosis on their playoff chances?
1. Improved Team Defence
The 2021 edition of the Blue Jays has only committed 17 errors with a .983 fielding percentage, ranking them 6th respectively in the American League. After 39 errors in 60 games last year, which led to 44 unearned runs allowed, the Blue Jays have only allowed 11 unearned runs season to date. In other words, the Jays have found their inner Tampa Bay Rays and are not beating themselves. Admittedly the team’s defence is not generating defensive runs saved (DRS) at -11 or outs above average (OAA) at -14, both stats ranking the club last in major league baseball, but they are mostly making the plays they should be making. Guerrero Jr. looks much more nimble at first base after improving his conditioning this past off-season, making some great plays to corral errant throws and make acrobatic outs with sweeping tags.
Semien seems to have settled the infield defence and the much-awaited debut of Springer in the field should improve the outfield defence as well, with Grichuk eventually shifting to right field.
2. The Bullpen
Blue Jay relievers have gone 8-5 with 7 saves in 120.2 innings with a 2.46 ERA, second only to the Yankees’ 2.30. Their combined fielding independent pitching (FIP) of 3.67 is good for 7th in major league baseball and they’ve added an fWAR of 1.2, which ranks them 5th in the league and 3rd in the AL East behind New York and Boston prior to Wednesday’s game. Phelps, Rafael Dolis, Joel Payamps, Trent Thornton, and Jordan Romano all have ERAs under 3, while Merryweather, Chatwood, Tim Mayza, Antony Castro, and Travis Bergen have yet to allow a single run this season.
3. Three Good Starters
Ryu, Matz, and Ray have made 15 starts combined, and pitched 82.1 innings for an average of almost 5.2 innings per start. While Ryu has missed a turn in the rotation due to a glute strain, he should be activated from the 10-day IL to make his next scheduled start this Thursday in Oakland.
Blue Jays fans obviously hope Matz can keep the composure that helped him to a 4-0 start with a 2.31 ERA, while in his most recent two starts it has been elevated he has thrown to an 11.42 (now sitting at 4.78 on the season). After his start Monday against Oakland, cameras caught Matz erupting in the Blue Jays dugout, violently slamming his cap against the bench and wall when he was pulled from the game after allowing a two-run homer to Athletics’ outfielder Ramon Laureano.
4. The Emergence of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. as an MVP Candidate and Triple Crown Threat
The son has risen.
Vlad Jr. has arrived with a .340/.479/.617/1.096 slash line along with 7 HRs and 20 RBIs, with his highlight being a breakout 3 home run game with 7 RBIs against Max Scherzer and the Nationals on April 27th. He just turned 22 years old in March and is crushing line drives and frozen ropes with authority, with an average exit velocity of 94.8 mph, ranking him 4th in major league baseball. He’s now reached base 57 times this season, the most in the majors and he continues to crush the ball, twice having exit velocities topping 110 mph in the first game of the west coast swing.
He’s certainly making his Hall of Famer father proud!
5. The Return of George Springer and Teoscar Hernandez to the lineup
What’s not to love about adding the 2017 World Series MVP, three-time All-Star and a two-time Silver Slugger in Springer, and 2020 Silver Slugger Hernandez back to an already potent offense?
Conversely, what are the five largest threats to improving playoff odds?
As per Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet,
"The Blue Jays have had 16 different players on the injured list at one point or another. There are eight on there currently, including three — Alejandro Kirk, Tommy Milone, and Anthony Castro — who were added Sunday. The club’s rotation has been a day-to-day proposition since the season’s second week. It was one thing last month when Toronto had a stretch of only seven games in 11 days; it’s another now as it plays 29 in 31. [Toronto] used 23 different lineups through 26 games — 15 batters have made a plate appearance; 20 pitchers have thrown an inning."
2. Back End of the Rotation
Eleven different pitchers have made starts for the Jays through the first 27 games in 2021. This past Sunday against the Atlanta Braves, the Blue Jays didn’t publicly name a starting pitcher (Ross Stripling) until 35 minutes before the first pitch. The team is clearly struggling to cover innings after Ryu, Matz, and Ray in the starting rotation. The starters have only pitched 118 innings with a 4.42 ERA, 4.44 FIP, and 0.7 fWAR, trailing their AL East rivals the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays in all categories. Reinforcements are coming, with rookie Nate Pearson set to build up arm strength in Triple-A alongside potential rookie call-up Alex Manoah. However, Tanner Roark has been
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designated for assignment (and released) and Thomas Hatch is on the 60-day IL with a right elbow impingement. Stripling, T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay, and Tommy Milone all are below replacement value while Thornton has been useful on occasion but appears to be more of an opener or a ‘once through the order’ type pitcher.
3. Sophomore Slumps
While Vlad Jr. and Bichette continue to hit with authority, Cavan Biggio has had a rough start to the year both with the bat and the glove. He’s slashing just .185/.295/.296/.591 and sits dead last amongst qualified third baseman with -4 defensive runs saved and -5 outs above average to go with 6 errors and a fielding percentage of only .914. Bichette has also faced his own struggles at shortstop, with a -4 DRS, OAA -6, and 7 errors to go with a fielding percentage of only .939.
4. Team Defence
See above. It would be far worse without some great fielding at first base by Guerrero Jr.
5. A Failure to Improve this Team at the July Trade Deadline (TDL)
The consensus view is that the Blue Jays will be buyers at the July trade deadline and that they’ll look to add starting pitching and a third baseman. Assuming the current standings hold, teams that are out of the playoff hunt may look to move players on expiring contracts like Chicago Cubs 3B Kris Bryant and starting pitchers Zach Davies and Jake Arrieta, Colorado Rockies starter Jon Gray, Arizona Diamondbacks 3B Eduardo Escobar, Baltimore Orioles 3B Maikel Franco, Texas Rangers infielder Brock Holt, and Detroit Tigers starter Julio Teheran, all of whom might be available as 2021 rentals.
Will the front office of team president Mark Shapiro and General Manager Ross Atkins be willing to deal prospects from the highly-rated farm system to acquire a few starters like Gray and Arrieta, as well as Bryant, or to add playoff experienced bench piece like Holt as potentially short term rentals?
The Jays haven’t even played a fifth of their schedule yet, so it’s early. As new Met’s owner Steve Cohen recently tweeted, the season has a long way to go.
However, despite all of the adversity the Blue Jays have faced through the first 28 games, with 16 different players on the injured list, including 11 different starting pitchers, and almost no production out of the bottom of the batting order, they’re still in the thick of the AL East with a .500 record. Reinforcements in the form of Springer and Hernandez are back in the line-up, and players who don’t make the team more competitive, like Tanner Roark, are being DFA’d instead of wasting roster spots.
The team is well-positioned to add MLB talent at the July TDL, and make a push for the playoffs and play meaningful baseball this fall. We’ll revisit their chances again come July, but the early prognosis is certainly encouraging.