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American League East Preview: Toronto Blue Jays

The squad north of the border has a bright future, but it isn’t quite here yet.

Arizona Fall League All Star Game Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

With only a little more than a week left until Opening Day for most teams (and only a couple days away from Opening Day for the Mariners and A’s) it’s time to really start looking forward to the coming season. With that in mind, we’ll spend this week looking at the rest of the competition in the division, going in reverse order of last year’s standings. Then, on Friday we’ll take a broader look at the rest of the American League. Today, we discuss the Blue Jays.

Projections

Fangraphs: 76-86

PECOTA: 76-86

The Lineup

Toronto is going to be a scary opponent for pitchers in just a couple of years, though we aren’t quite there yet. It’s coming soon, though, and the biggest part of that puzzle is going to arrive early in 2019. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the best prospect in the game (at least for most evaluators) and has been called the best hitting prospect since Miguel Cabrera. That’s high praise and a lot of pressure, but he’s shown nothing to indicate he can’t handle it. Toronto was planning on manipulating his service time but were bailed out of some bad press by a minor injury. That will delay the stud prospect long enough. Still, Guerrero will be up by May, and he’ll likely be right in the middle of that lineup. Later in the year, their number two prospect Bo Bichette could make his debut as well.

Beyond those two stud prospects, Toronto does have some talent to deal with. Justin Smoak is back at first base for the Jays in 2019, and he continues to be an underrated and steady power presence. Lourdes Gurriel will be in the middle infield this year and he has some upside in his bat. Kendrys Morales and Randal Grichuk also return to the middle of the lineup. Behind the plate we’ll see a Blue Jays team without Russell Martin for the first time in a while. Instead, they have prospect Danny Jansen there, and he could give above-average production with the bat. Kevin Pillar also remains in center field, and while he probably won’t hit a ton he will provide stellar defense.

All together, Toronto’s offense will probably get better as the year goes on thanks to call ups and guys like Devon Travis returning from injury, but it’s not a group to sleep on. Although the Jays certainly aren’t the Astros or the Yankees, they have the potential to give pitchers fits on plenty of nights.

MLB: Spring Training-Pittsburgh Pirates at Toronto Blue Jays Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

The Rotation

I think I probably like the Blue Jays rotation more than most as it’s filled with guys on whom I’ve always been higher on relative to their actual production. Marcus Stroman comes back as the team’s ace, but he’s been trending in the wrong direction. The 27-year-old can be tough to square up, but his strikeout rate dropped below seven per nine innings last year while his walk rate climbed above three per nine. Of course, he was also hurt and I suspect with health he’ll improve upon his 2018. Aaron Sanchez was one of the biggest breakouts in the game in 2016, but due to injury and just poor performance he’s failed to get back to that level. Ryan Borucki is an intriguing young lefty, but there’s not a huge track record there. Matt Shoemaker is the new addition, but he’s started only 21 games over the last two years combined. There’s no knowing what he’ll provide in 2019. The rotation will be filled out by guys like Clayton Richard, old friend Clay Buchholz and prospect Sean Reid-Foley and Trent Thornton.

The projections aren’t really wild about this group, but again I think they’re better than they appear at first glance. The downside is certainly clear, and it would be far from a surprise if most of these guys get closer to their floor than their ceiling. That said, Stroman and Sanchez have the potential to be a solid one-two punch and Borucki was solid as a rookie last year.

The Bullpen

Speaking of guys I’ve always been higher on than most, Ken Giles has been one of my fantasy baseball targets for what seems like a decade now. I’ve always been a big-time believer in his talent, and at this point I can’t stop. There are some real questions about his mentality in the late innings, but he’s had plenty of success before. With a full season in Toronto I wouldn’t be surprised if he got back to his 2017 self. It’s after Giles where the real problems begin, though. The Blue Jays have a lot of fine arms after their closer, including Bud Norris, Ryan Tepera and David Phelps (when he gets healthy), but the first two struggled in the second half last year and Phelps didn’t pitch at all. There’s a chance everything comes together and the Blue Jays are steady late in games, but a lot would have to go right for that to happen.

Overall

After reading this you probably won’t be surprised to learn I think the Blue Jays are going to be better than many are giving them credit for. I’m not sure they are quite ready to push for a playoff spot, but I’ll take the over on the 76 wins both projection systems have them at. Toronto’s kind of been in purgatory for a few years now, but with Guerrero and Bichette on the way, this year could be the start of a swing back up.