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Looking back on 2016

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Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2016 season now over, attention naturally shifts toward 2017. But before that gets going in full force, it's an opportune time to look back on 2016. In the middle of Spring Training, on March 14, I previewed some of the questions facing the Blue Jays in 2016, organized into four categories according to uncertainty in a framework popularized by Don Rumsfeld. Now we can assess how things played out, including the few predictions. For more on what each of these categories means, refer back to the original.

Known knowns
  • "The line-up will score a lot of runs... it's very likely the Jays will be a top-five run scoring team in 2016" Well, so much for known knowns. As a team, the Jays ranked 9th in non-pitcher wRC+ at 103, though essentially tied with a few teams below. They were 5th in runs scored...in the AL only. Overall, despite ups-and-downs, the Jays were still a good run scoring team, just well short of expectations based on returning most of the 2015 core. And they picked a really bad time to go into an extended funk.
  • "R.A. Dickey will not require Tommy John surgery, and is likely good for 30+ starts" This section was intentionally kept short since there are few knowables over a baseball season, so this was mostly for humour. DIckey did not miss any time, though only made 29 starts after being removed down the stretch due to ineffectiveness. Technically wrong, but the broad thrust was right.
  • Quality depth will be critical for such an older veteran team. Indeed. Darwin Barney was a great fill-in early, and Ezequiel Carrera had some excellent sretches, but broadly this was disappointing and a principle cause of the reduced offensive production. Ryan Goins didn't hit a lick. Justin Smoak couldnt make contact. Call-ups from Buffalo (Darrell Ceciliani, Matt Dominguez, Andy Burns etc) didn't even record a hit until....July? For a brief period they were running Jimmy Paredes out there. Consequently, too often the bottom part of the lineup was a Black Thole.
Known unknowns
  • Can Marcus Stroman take the next step from #2 starter and become a true ace? No, and by ERA he was actually only a mid-rotation starter. It was a bumpy season for Stroman, and the stuff and advanced metrics are tantalizing, but there really weren't any signs of a breakout.
  • "Troy Tulowitzki's going to miss games, but how many?" Tulo played 133 games, 544 PA, and just one minor DL stint. All things considered, a positive outcome.
  • "How much MLB time does Dalton Pompey see?" Effectively zero, including shockingly little when rosters expanded. Is this a signal as to his future in Toronto (a la Hutchison)?
  • "Who wins the fourth outfield position?" Ezequiel Carrera ended up with 310 PA, and though up-and-down was reasonably effective, plus a strong playoff run that should cement his spot for 2017.
  • "How does the bullpen shake out?" Sigh, too many disappointments. The Jays finished 21st in bullpen adjusted-ERA, 15th in FIP-, and 15th by WPA (which is actually very good after digging a huge hole in April). Credit to the front office for not overpaying to plug holes and instead finding some cheap reclamation/fresh start projects who paid dividends.
  • "How will the Justin Smoak / Chris Colabello platoon work?" Fan-tastic!
  • "How much does Marco Estrada regress?" Very little on batted balls, thanks in part to his infield defenders, and while his walk rate continues to trends upwards, his strikeout rate reversed years of decline. As a result, his adjusted-ERA/FIP gap fell in half from 31 to 15, but he was still almost as effective at preventing runs relative to (an increased) league average.
  • "Will we get Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Happ?" Mr. J.A. Happ exceeded pretty much all expectations, basically earning his entire deal in year one.
Unknown unknowns
  • "What crazy injury is going to happen?" It looked like Russell Martin slipping in the showers would be a relatively boring winner until Joaquin Benoit's season ended running in the from the bullpen in the 9/26 altercation with the Yankees. Brilliant.
  • "How will Dickey's surgery (and weight change) affect him?" It appears that my midseason 2015 piece on Dickey's decline was just a year early.
  • "Which AL East teams will surprise to the upside and downside?" Baltimore overcame horrible starting pitching to hang in and get to wild card game, far exceeding PECOTA's 74 win projection. Tampa collapsed to a distant 5th. For a second straight year, winning the AL East only required, as baseball's toughest division (MLB high 36 games above .500) beat each other up
  • "Do things fall off a cliff?" Thankfully, no, despite some major early red flags as Martin and Tulo struggled hitting before rounding into form. This remains a serious concern, especially if significant dollars are committed to one or both of Encarnacion and Bautista.
Unknown knowns
  • "What is the budget? [I]s money being held back midseason additions" The very good news here is that the surge in revenues appears to have resulted in increased flexibility, as the Jays were able to plug a few holes by taking on money over the season.
  • "What was the front office thinking [regarding Jay Bruce?]" This one really wasn't about Jay Bruce. The really frustrating thing about the first year of the Shapiro front office is that while they've made some really good moves, every once in a while they do an objectively headscratching move. The Bruce machinations. Lighting $8-million on Smoak fire. Which brings us to....
  • "How much would they like to undo the Jesse Chavez - Liam Hendriks trade?" This turd certainly didn't get any polish with time. Yes, Hendriks struggled early but was very good after missing a month. And he made the league minimum. And he has three more years control.The Jays ended up paying the Dodgers over $1-million to dump Chavez. Sigh.
  • "How actively is Ed Rogers involved in calling the shots?" We don't really know anything more here, other than Shapiro seems firmly in command. However, this past week saw a big boardroom shakeup, with Guy Laurence out and the Rogers' heirs fingerprints all over.

Obviously, it wasn't possible to cover every angle back in Spring Training, but a few things that in hindsight were conspicuous in their absence:

  • Aaron Sanchez, Aaron Sanchez, Aaron Sanchez. I don't think even the most optimistic would have seen him leading the AL in ERA, but from his first start he was a completely different pitcher with command and cemented himself as a franchise cornerstone.
  • Joe Biagini becoming an anchor in the bullpen
  • Even appreciating inherent reliever volatility, the struggles and decline of Brett Cecil and Drew Storen were quite stunning.

So that's a quick look back at how some of the major questions entering were resolved. On Monday, I'll look ahead to 2017 with the annual roster breakdown before it starts to be reshaped.