Despite an unceremonious exit in the wild-card series, the Toronto Blue Jays’ 2020 season was an unmitigated success.
This was supposed to be the season the club was done selling parts and starting to build, but the assumption was that it would take a little longer to break through and start playing October baseball. A number of factors unique to 2020 — most importantly the expanded playoff field — opened the door for the Blue Jays, but they walked through it ahead of schedule. They deserve credit for that.
Now they’re left with an offseason full of questions to ponder. It’s obvious the rotation needs help. Only Hyun-Jin Ryu and Tanner Roark are surefire starters under contract for next season, and if Roark is anything more than the fifth man in the rotation heading into 2021, that’ll be a major indictment on this front office.
Beyond the rotation concerns, though, most of the musing that’ll be done between now and next spring has to do with the players who are in the building, most of whom aren’t going anywhere. If you project out a lineup for 2021 you’ve got the trio of Vladmir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette, an outfield you’re almost certainly running back with Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Teoscar Hernandez, plus a catching spot held down by either Danny Jansen or the people’s champion, Alejandro Kirk. That leaves the designated hitter spot, which can either be shared or given to Rowdy Tellez, and third base. That means there’s only one position where you’re likely to see someone from outside the organization.
On the bullpen side, Anthony Bass and Ken Giles are free agents, but Rafael Dolis, AJ Cole, Jordan Romano and Ryan Borucki are still kicking around. Behind them is a legion of arms that could be deployed there depending on their chances of starting, like Thomas Hatch, Julian Merryweather and Patrick Murphy. Maybe 2021 is the year Trent Thornton finally finds a home in the pen. Longmen Shun Yamaguchi and Ross Stripling aren’t going anywhere, either. There could be an addition or two here, but there are plenty of internal candidates.
Besides the rotation, this doesn’t look like an offseason of change. As a result, the toughest questions the Blue Jays will grapple with are those surrounding their own players. Here a few they’ll be pondering all offseason:
Can the Blue Jays live with this group’s defence?
The Blue Jays’ current position player core is pretty inept defensively. Guerrero Jr. struggled as a newcomer to first base this year, Bichette’s glove grades out just below average at shortstop, and the Hernandez-Gurriel Jr. duo can be painful to watch in the outfield corners despite their above-average arms. Biggio is solid at second, but his defence loses its lustre a bit the more he’s moved around, and Grichuk is probably out of position in centre. Danny Jansen was great behind the plate in 2019, but took a step back this year. It’s pretty hard to project what Kirk could accomplish with the glove, but he’s not an obvious defensive plus.
Because this group is so young, it’s tempting to assume they’ll improve, but defensive aging curves are normally exceedingly steep in baseball. More often than not, players are at their best with the glove when they reach the majors and get incrementally worse from there. Excelling defensively demands more athleticism than experience. In this group, Guerrero Jr. will probably improve with experience at first, and you could make that case for Jansen considering the cerebral nature of the catching position, but there’s no specific reason to believe any of the other guys will take a step forward with the glove. Hernandez could make a case considering he has the elite speed to produce far more in the field, but he’s approaching his 28th birthday and looks unlikely to fulfill that promise.
Of course, in order to succeed there is no specific defensive bar this team needs to clear in order to take the next step. If each individual player hits enough to overcome his shortcomings in the field, he’ll justify his starting spot. However, a defence with holes all around could result in a few ill-timed meltdowns and limit the Blue Jays’ ability to get value out of certain types of pitchers who are more contact-oriented.
This season their Defensive Runs Saved of -39 ranked 29th in the majors. If they keep their position-player core as is, that could happen again, which would put a heck of strain on the bats to produce and the pitchers to overcome adversity.
Is there a starter behind Ryu worth believing in?
The obvious answer to this question is Nate Pearson. Pearson’s talent is beyond repute, and he has the ability to join Ryu at the front of this rotation. He also pitched just 20 innings this season and has just 143.2 frames under his belt since the beginning of the 2018 campaign. His workload is going to generate debate all year long, and it seems unlikely he’ll be fully unleashed in 2021.
Roark will probably be in the rotation, but unless his stuff bounces back he’s not going to give the Blue Jays quality innings. Other than him, you’ve got the 2020 bullpen guys like Merryweather (enormous injury/workload concerns), Hatch (never even reached Triple-A as a starter), Murphy (ditto) and Borucki (probably a long-term reliever).
Some of the more polished rotation candidates like Thornton and Anthony Kay arguably have the lowest ceilings, and veterans like Yamaguchi and Stripling didn’t even look good in the pen this year.
The Blue Jays are going to go and get rotation help this offseason, but it seems unlikely they’ll grab three credible starters. That means somebody they’ve already got needs to step up, probably in at least a middle-of-the-rotation role.
When are the reinforcements coming?
Although the Blue Jays have graduated a number of quality prospects to their MLB roster in recent years, they still have a treasure trove of young talent. In fact, back in August, Baseball America ranked their farm system as the fourth-best among MLB franchises.
The Blue Jays’ team building strategy this offseason will have to account for the progress of their blue-chip prospects — progress that’s harder to track than ever thanks to the lack of minor-league baseball in 2020.
For example, if you believe that Austin Martin will be ready to wield an above-average MLB bat by the beginning of 2022, then that might change how you invest in third basemen, directing you to more of a Travis Shaw-like one-year option as opposed to a longer-term solution. The same goes for Jordan Groshans.
Internal timelines for Alek Manoah and Simeon Woods Richardson could affect your rotation building, although having too many arms is never a bad thing. Perhaps anticipating a powerful right-hander like Manoah joining the bullpen late in the season alters how you approach the relief market.
If the Blue Jays go out and invest in complementary pieces, stopgaps and depth players, it will likely be derided as needless penny-pinching and a misunderstanding of how to build a contender. Should they go that direction in the rotation, the criticism will be justified. However, not jumping in on other players might just show that they think their top prospects are ready to get them where they need to go — perhaps even sooner than expected.
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