What can the Blue Jays reflect on and look forward to in 2017?
The Toronto Blue Jays had a memorable 2016. After an incredible Wild Card victory over the Baltimore Orioles, the Blue Jays met up with their rival Texas Rangers in the ALDS, sweeping them to make it to the AL Championship Series. However, the Blue Jays met their match against the Cleveland Indians, who won the AL Pennant over the Blue Jays in five games.
Despite their success this season, this could be the end of the Blue Jays as we know them. With Edwin Encarnación, who turns 34 this offseason, and José Bautista, who just turned 36, hitting free agency, the club is at a crossroads. Mark Shapiro, Ross Atkins & Co. are faced with the tough decision of whether they should try and re-sign two of their biggest stars.
First, let’s look at Encarnación. Since his surge in 2012, “Edwing” has been the epitome of consistent hitting. During this five-year stretch, he has averaged 4.2 bWAR, thanks to his OPS+ of 146. 2016 was no different. With a .263/.357/.529 slash line, Encarnción was able to continue his success at the plate.
However, there are many questions surrounding what his next contract will look like. Although he’s played other positions in the past, Encarnación is stricly a 1B/DH these days. In addition, he saw a four percent spike in his K rate, though it is still below league average. Nevertheless, there will surely be a large market for Encarnación. The Blue Jays will be forced to make a decision sooner rather than later on where to go with him.
As for Bautista, the Blue Jays’ decision should be a bit easier. Although Bautista has been a fan favorite since his tremendous 2010 season, he left a lot to be desired last season. Like his free agent-mate Encarnacion, Bautista saw a four percent surge in his K rate. In addition, his ISO fell to .217, showing that his once elite power is now just above average. This left him with an OPS + of 117, 28 points lower than his previous five year average of 145. Combine this with his declining skill set in the outfield and you’re left with a player who has many question marks surrounding him. With Toronto’s extension of a qualifying offer, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a small market for Bautista this offseason.
The last key free agent the Blue Jays have this offseason is Michael Saunders. Overall, Saunders put up nice numbers to the tune of .253/.338/.478. After an impressive first half, in which he posted a wRC+ of 146 and earned a trip to the All-Star Game, Saunders put up well below-average numbers in the second half (wRC+ of 69). This, combined with below-average defense in the outfield (-11 defensive runs saved), took away any chance that he’d be offered a qualifying offer. However, corner outfield is a spot that the Blue Jays could look to improve upon, leaving a reunion as a possibility.
Nevertheless, even with these three key members hitting free agency, there is a lot of talent left on the Blue Jays roster:
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Josh Donaldson has proven that he is a perennial MVP candidate. After winning the award in 2015, Donaldson once again showed out for the Blue Jays. With an improved walk rate (5.3% increase to 15.6%) and a slash line of .284/.404/.549, good for an OPS+ of 152, Donaldson’s fWAR of 7.6 ranked him fourth in the league. With team control for two more seasons, there is little doubt that Donaldson will keep being a bargain for the Blue Jays.
Kevin Pillar is among the game’s best defensive center fielders. In 2016, Pillar lead the majors in UZR/150 with a mark of 26.3, meaning he prevented 26.3 runs for the team every 150 games he was out there. However, Pillar doesn’t quite have the same skills on the offensive side of the ball. Last season he demonstrated this with an OPS+ of 81, 12 points lower than 2015. Nevertheless, Pillar still posted 3.2 fWAR and 3.4 bWAR, showing that his defense more than makes up for these offensive flaws.
Troy Tulowitzki came over to the Blue Jays in a blockbuster deadline deal in 2015. After putting up excellent numbers (123 OPS+ & average of 4.2 bWAR) for the Rockies, Tulo has come back down to Earth (98 OPS+ & average of 3.0 bWAR) for the Blue Jays. In spite of that little drop off, with Tulo under contract for the next four years at $74MM and a team option for a fifth year at $15MM, the Blue Jays have to be happy about their state at shortstop.
Russell Martin is the other big name offensive player for the Blue Jays. After a great first season back in his native country, Martin saw a bit of a decline in 2016. One of the biggest concerns around his game was the sharp increase in strikeouts. 2016 saw Martin strikeout 27.7% of the time, more than six percent higher than any other season he has had. Additionally, Martin saw his ISO fall back down to his career norm at .167. Overall, Martin and the Blue Jays will look to improve upon his wRC+ of 99 and hope to get back to his 2013-2015 average of 118.
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Aaron Sanchez made a name for himself after being given a spot in the rotation. Sanchez, whose ERA of 3.00 led the American League, employs one of the game’s best sinkers. This pitch allowed him to post the fifth best ground ball percentage in the Majors at 54.4% and the lowest home run rate among starts.
Likewise, his teammate Marcus Stroman led MLB in ground ball percentage. While Stroman’s 2016 ERA of 4.37 doesn’t match his FIP of 3.71, there is reason to believe that he will be someone who’ll continue to fail to meet his FIP. Stroman has struggled throughout his career with leaving runners on base. With an LOB rate of 69.9%, three percent lower than league average, and an OPS .129 points higher (.755 vs. .626) when men are on base versus no one on, there is plenty of evidence that he needs to adjust his work from the stretch. Luckily, Stroman is young enough and skilled enough to make these adjustments. Between Sanchez, 24, and Stroman, 25, the Blue Jays have two rotation pieces they will be able to build around for the foreseeable future.
J.A. Happ provided the Blue Jays with more than they ever could have asked for when they signed him to a three-year, $36MM deal last offseason. Happ gave the Blue Jays 195 innings of 3.18 ERA ball, good enough to lead them to 20 wins. While he most likely won’t be able to replicate those numbers next year, thanks to his peripherals, Happ has cemented his spot in the rotation for the 2017 campaign.
Marco Estrada has surprisingly allowed the fewest hits per nine innings in the league the past two seasons. Unlike Sanchez and Stroman, Estrada relies heavily on fly balls — at the third highest rate in the league — but is able to keep the ball in the park. This reliance on fly balls allows him keep his BABIP and ERA down from their expected levels. In 2016, Estrada posted an above average ERA of 3.48 and was named to his first All-Star Game. However, Estrada’s best work appeared in the postseason, where he showed off his excellent changeup to the masses and posted a 2.01 ERA across the two series.
Roberto Osuna has quickly become one of the game’s better relievers. At 20, Osuna was able to lock down the closer’s spot for the Blue Jays his rookie season. Last year, in his age-21 season, Osuna was able to replicate his rookie season success. With a fastball in the mid to upper 90s and an above average slider, Osuna was able to strikeout 28.5% of the batters he faced in 2016. In addition, he posted an excellent walk rate of 4.9%. While Osuna has had a bit of trouble keeping the ball in the park compared to other top flight relievers, he has entered the discussion as a top-tier closer. With Osuna still in pre-arb, the Blue Jays have to be ecstatic about the future of the back end of their bullpen.
Trying to figure out who the Blue Jays will be in 2017 is difficult right now. Though they have plenty of talent on their roster, there are plenty of holes that the front office will need to address. Whether that means that they go after their own free agents or look elsewhere, there are likely going to be a few new faces for the Toronto crowd to root for.
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