The rapid rise and fall of the Toronto Blue Jays began with two consecutive ALCS appearances in 2015 and ‘16, and to this point has led to three losing seasons in a row in the years that have followed.
The Blue Jays were one of the most widely beloved and exhilarating clubs of the mid-2010s, as their powerful offense was one of the most formidable in the sport. 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson was among the key cogs of the group, which also featured José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación. All three were capable of mashing homers, as they combined to make up a lineup that was truly a murderer’s row.
In the middle of the 2015 season, the Jays were struggling to keep pace in the playoff race due to their shaky pitching staff, despite their offensive prowess. In a blockbuster move, they would acquire ace David Price from the Tigers, who proved crucial to Toronto’s eventual AL East title. The Jays also added shortstop Troy Tulowitzki near the trade deadline of the same season, who at the time was considered one of the best shortstops in baseball. His tenure with Toronto did not quite live up the hype, mostly due to injury, but the Blue Jays’ intent to go all-in on the short-term future with these moves was evident.
Valiant efforts to improve the club turned out to be in vain, as ultimately Toronto came up short in both 2015 and ‘16; the Blue Jays were not able to capture the club’s first World Series title since their back-to-back wins more than twenty years prior, which were capped by the legendary Joe Carter walk-off homer in game six of the 1993 Fall Classic.
Since 2016, the Blue Jays’ roster has entirely turned over, and their playoff-quality squad has disintegrated as a result of aging, trades, and free agent departures. Price would spend just a few months in Toronto, as he bolted after the ‘16 season and signed a massive deal with the Boston Red Sox. An injury-plagued Donaldson was traded to the Cleveland Indians in 2018, and each of Bautista and Encarnación were allowed to leave the Blue Jays as free agents.
In the present, Toronto’s organizational direction appears to be fundamentally sound. A solid core of cornerstone pieces has been assembled, as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio make up a trio of familiar names whose fathers are all former Major Leaguers. The development of this young group, who are expected to start 2020 at the top of Toronto’s lineup, will be the single most pivotal story of this coming season.
Guerrero Jr. was the first to reach the Majors, as he made his debut on April 26th of last season. His rookie year was a bit of a roller coaster, as he did not get off to the start that many expected he would, but he showed signs of his elite potential in the middle months of 2019. In August, he slashed .341/.406/.571, easily the best stretch of his young career. He would struggle in September with a .557 OPS, but it is possible he hit the “rookie wall” that many encounter.
The highlight of Guerrero’s 2019 campaign was undoubtedly his incredible performance in the home run derby, as he crushed 91 total homers, which is an all-time record for a single derby. This actually was not enough to win, as circumstance led Pete Alonso to the trophy, but Guerrero’s performance will reign as one of the most unforgettable of all-time, and will help provide a glimmer of hope for Blue Jays fans in the form of their young star.
Cavan Biggio was next to make it to the Major League level, as his first appearance came on May 24th. Biggio’s first campaign was a mixed bag, but he absolutely exploded with a .987 OPS in September. The son of Hall of Famer Craig Biggio profiles as a versatile defender with respectable pop in his bat, showed excellent on-base ability in 2019 with a .364 on-base percentage. This facet of his game makes Biggio a prime candidate to occupy one of the top spots in the Blue Jays’ lineup for years to come.
Bichette also got his first taste of the Major Leagues last season, as he was recalled from Triple-A on July 29th. The 21-year-old product of Orlando, Florida made a splash during his short time in the show in 2019, as he slashed .311/.358/.571 with a .930 OPS and 11 homers in just 46 games played. Bichette’s electric flair and pure talent have him set up to become one of the game’s true stars; he could also become a fantastic ambassador for Canadian baseball as a whole. Also, his August 20th battle with the great Clayton Kershaw was one of the most fun moments of the entire baseball season, and shows that baseball is in good hands when it comes to young talent.
The rest of the Blue Jays 2020 offense will comprise of a selection of decent roleplayers and some further young talent. Lourdes Gurriel has been a superb hitter when healthy, as he recorded 20 homers and an .869 OPS last season; yet he was limited to just 84 games last season. Should he remain healthy, Gurriel’s presence in the middle of the lineup will aid in protecting the aforementioned trio of prized prospects.
First baseman Rowdy Tellez is still just 24 years of age, and has homered 25 times in 134 career games; he could be a promising complimentary piece if he can consistently produce at this level. Randal Grichuk is also capable of filling this type of role, as he blasted 31 homers last season.
The Blue Jays signed former Milwaukee Brewer Travis Shaw in a buy-low move, as he fell off a cliff in 2019 as his OPS dipped to just .551. In ‘17 and ‘18, he was a key member of the Brewers offense; he posted a combined 63 homers across the two seasons. If he can return to form, he will round out a potentially dangerous Blue Jays attack.
The achilles heel for Toronto in 2020 will almost certainly be their pitching staff. The free agent signing of 2019 Major League ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu will make matters better, but he is not fit to carry an entire rotation. Last season was the first in which Ryu started 29 or more games since his rookie campaign of 2013, and his troublesome injury history will likely be a prominent story as he ages. After a dominant start to last season, Ryu’s ERA spiked to 7.48 in August; however, he was able to rebound nicely with a 2.13 mark in September. At the very least, Ryu will provide stability and experience to a questionable Blue Jays rotation.
Toronto also added starters Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson in the off-season, who, like Ryu, have Big League success under their belts. Roark and Anderson are by no means the deadliest second and third starters in the league, but they should be able to eat up innings and at times pitch well for the young Toronto club. Starter Matt Shoemaker should do the same if he can effectively bounce back from a torn ACL which occurred in April of 2019.
Looking to the bullpen, Toronto should feel confident in their closer, as Ken Giles was lights out last season. In his first full season with the Blue Jays, Giles’ ERA was 1.87 (2.27 FIP), and his nasty stuff led to a massive 14.09 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate. The rest of the ‘pen is likely to become problematic for the Jays, as none of Anthony Bass, Sam Gaviglio, Wilmer Font, Shun Yamaguchi, or, for that matter, any of the relievers on this roster, have had any previously sustained success in the bullpen.
The Blue Jays are close. They are certainly on the right track. However, they are not ready to contend just yet. 2020 will be a key year for the development of their young core, and could set the stage for playoff runs in the seasons to follow.
Projected Divisional Finish (AL East):
Projected Opening Day Lineup and Rotation (Fangraphs 2020 fWAR Projections for each player in parentheses):
Bo Bichette SS (3.3)
Cavan Biggio 2B (2.3)
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. LF (0.7)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. 3B (3.1)
Travis Shaw DH (2.2)
Randal Grichuk RF (1.4)
Rowdy Tellez 1B (0.6)
Teoscar Hernández CF (0.4)
Danny Jansen C (1.4)
Hyun-Jin Ryu (2.7)
Tanner Roark (2.0)
Matt Shoemaker (1.0)
Chase Anderson (0.9)
Trent Thornton (1.5)