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The Toronto (Dunedin) Blue Jays [2021 Season Preview]

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The 2020 season was bizarre on every conceivable level for every organization, yet an argument can be made that the Blue Jays had the strangest season of all. About a week before the season was to begin, the Canadian government denied the Blue Jays’ request to play in Toronto, fearing the repercussions of repeated travel from the United States into the great white north. They then struck an agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Major League Baseball to play their home games at PNC Park … and the Pennsylvania Department of Health nixed that shortly thereafter.

A couple of days later, the Blue Jays announced that they would play their home games at Sahlen Field, the home of their Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons. Unfortunately, that park was not up to the standards of Major League Baseball, so they would have to wait until August 11 to play their first “home” game. And so for the first two and a half weeks of the season, they played the part of the home team at their opponent’s ballpark.

The Blue Jays nevertheless finished 32-28 (including a 17-13 home record) and made the postseason as a Wild Card team. They were swept by the eventual pennant winning Rays in the Wild Card Series, but, all things considered, it was a relatively successful season.

So what will 2021 hold for them?

The Potential Offensive Juggernaut

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The Blue Jays finished seventh in the majors in runs in 2020, and twelfth in wRC+. It’s easy to dismiss that to some extent, given that their top two hitters were Teoscar Hernández and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. playing above their baselines – but they were also without Bo Bichette for half of the season, and their offense was (and is) quite young. All of their best hitters are returning in 2021.

And to that mix the Blue Jays added George Springer – arguably the best position player on the free agent market – and Marcus Semien. Springer pushes one of Hernández, Gurriel, or Randal Grichuk to the bench, which also gives the team one of the best fourth outfielders around (this side of the Bronx, of course). And Semien allows Cavan Biggio to shift to third, where the team had a collective 75 wRC+ and -0.1 fWAR in 2020.

PECOTA is projecting the Blue Jays to score 857 runs in 2021, which checks in as the fifth-best mark in the majors behind (in order) the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Astros, and the Mets. Take a look at their probable lineup (with their ZiPS projected wRC+) and you’ll see why:

  1. George Springer, CF – 126 wRC+
  2. Marcus Semien, 2B – 108 wRC+
  3. Bo Bichette, SS – 119 wRC+
  4. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., 1B – 119 wRC+
  5. Teoscar Hernández, RF – 115 wRC+
  6. Cavan Biggio, 3B – 104 wRC+
  7. Lourdes Gurriel Jr., LF – 107 wRC+
  8. Rowdy Tellez, DH – 112 wRC+
  9. Danny Jansen, C – 97 wRC+

The aforementioned Grichuk (102 wRC+) is the fourth outfielder, and rookie Alejandro Kirk (99 wRC+) might end up snagging the starting catcher’s gig at some point this season.

It’s easy to look at that lineup and think that the Blue Jays offense could be scary. And Bichette (23), Guerrero (22), and Biggio (25) might just have more upside to tap into.

The Questionable Pitching Staff

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Hyun Jin Ryu has only been healthy (or mostly healthy) for four of his seven MLB seasons, and he’s going to be 34 next week. That’s not great. That said, he has a 2.95 ERA (131 ERA+) and 3.30 FIP in 807.1 IP in that time, and he’s done his best work over the last three years. To wit:

332.0 IP8.8 K/91.5 BB/92.30 ERA3.06 FIP8.5 fWAR

That 8.5 fWAR places Ryu 20th among starting pitchers in that span, despite the fact that his 332 IP ranks just 64th. When he’s on the mound, he’s an ace.

Things get iffy after Ryu, though. Their rotation will probably look something like this (with their ZiPS projected fWAR):

  1. Hyun Jin Ryu, LHP – 3.o fWAR
  2. Robbie Ray, LHP – 2.7 fWAR
  3. Steven Matz, LHP – 1.1 fWAR
  4. Tanner Roark, RHP – 1.4 fWAR
  5. Nate Pearson, RHP – 2.1 fWAR

The fWAR figures don’t look terrible, but they don’t tell the whole story. Ray is coming off of a 6.52 ERA (6.50 FIP) and has always been walk and home run prone; Matz was even worse last year (9.68 ERA/7.76 FIP) and has a tenuous track record of health; Roark had a 6.80 ERA last year (6.86 FIP) and has seemingly lost a great deal of velocity; and Pearson is a rookie who won’t be ready for Opening Day due to a groin strain. There’s potential here, to be sure – but Ryu is their safest pitcher, and he isn’t too far removed from his own injury woes.

Their bullpen may be even more risky. The group posted a 4.71 ERA in 2020, and the additions thereto are Kirby Yates (12.46 ERA in 2020), Tyler Chatwood (5.30 ERA), and David Phelps (6.53 ERA). There’s talent here – Yates was arguably the best reliever in baseball in 2019 and holdovers Ryan Borucki (166 ERA+) and Rafel Dolis (296 ERA+) were great in 2020. But this is very much a group that is hoping for and/or betting on several bounceback seasons.

The Prospect to Watch

Pearson may be hurt right now, but he’s one of the best prospects in the majors. Consider the following top-100 rankings:

  • Keith Law – 5th
  • MLB dot com – 10th
  • Baseball America – 14th
  • Baseball Prospectus – 35th

Law in particular is all-in on Pearson, writing that “there are very few starting pitching prospects who can match his stuff and size, which give him the ceiling of a No. 1 starter.”

Pearson is a huge pitcher, checking in at 6’6″ and around 250 pounds, and he has a big fastball that sits in the upper 90s. Oh, and his slider does this:

Quick Projections

SystemW-LRuns ScoredRuns Allowed
PECOTA84-78857824
FanGraphs88-74863791

My Take

I think the Blue Jays are the second-best team in the AL East, and the biggest threat to the Yankees. I don’ know if they have the pitching to be a true threat for the crown – but I’m confident that they’re going to destroy the ball.

I’m intrigued by the potential of the offense as a whole, if only because Bichette and Guererro are just so young. It wouldn’t shock me if either comfortably overshot their ZiPS projections and ended up with a 130 wRC+. To be frank, I could see both doing it. And when you look at those projections, keep in mind that they’re projecting drop-offs for six of the nine starters – and they’re still intimidating.

I don’t know how to factor in their still unsettled home ballpark situation, though. They’ll be playing at their Dunedin, FL facility to open the season, and as of this writing they don’t have a long-term solution. It didn’t hinder them last season, though, and it’s not like there’s a ton of precedent for this.

The Blue Jays feel like a team that could win between 85 and 90 games to me. And I think they’ll be fun to watch.

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3 Comments

  1. Mungo

    The Toronto Blue Jays better hope that Pearson is as billed and has a fast learning curve. The rest of that starting staff looks scary.

  2. Troy

    Projections are not that great. I mean they are not bad for anyone but other than Bichette, I am not sure any are projected to be excellent for their position. Now I get that is a baseline and their is a tremendous amount of upside for some (and surely some downside), but if they hit their mean, I am not concerned.

  3. MiieD

    I believe the Yankees underperformed in 2020, while the Jays (and the Rays) overperformed last year, so I was looking for some regression. That said, the Jays made more than enough moves to compensate for the expected regression. Hitting wise, also have to factor in that Buffalo played like Coors on steroids, increasing run production by a whopping 50% in the pandemic-shortened season. We have to factor that into their hitters results, while also acknowledging it hurt their pitchers. Add that up, and an extra hat tip to Hyun Jin Ryu in his first season in the AL and with Toronto pitching in that minor league park. Dunedin figures to play to hitters too, but have to figure they’ll return to Toronto by May.

    Not to be a homer, but I have the Yankees winning the division fairly easily, especially as the season grinds on. The Rays and Jays will battle it out for 2nd and 3rd. I’m going with the Jays just finishing ahead of the Rays, with the Red Sox proving to be more annoying than expected, finishing much closer to the Jays and Rays than those teams will to the Yankees.

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