For as long as I can remember, one component of Baseball America’s Top Prospect rankings has been a sidebar box that contains a projected future roster (in the case of his year’s publication, projections for 2021) and while most fans dismiss such projections as useless fluff - and in many way they are because of player movement that can’t be projected or factored in - it’s still a worthwhile exercise for reminding us what sort of player foundation your team is working from.
Sunday afternoon, in the absence of any real substantial Blue Jays moves to write about, I indulged myself in a tweetstorm on the subject and Tom graciously invited me to expand on those thoughts. My original intention was to somewhat counter the narrative that management decided, if they were to so decide, to focus on contending in 2020, 2021, and beyond was a problematic thing or an oncoming period of mediocrity.
Certainly disclaimers are in order. I chose not to assume ANY contract extension or signing, and I set aside any potential trades or acquisitions even though all of these are likely to happen in some form during the next 3-5 seasons. For example, I’m a huge advocate of extending Josh Donaldson on a five year deal, but doing so really changes around some of these conclusions. Rather, this is just an exercise in forwarding the clock on the current crop of prospects. Likewise, while injury and regression WILL happen, it’s impossible to entirely predict when and to whom, so the goal for any team is to have more potential players than you can eventually use so that you allow for that natural attrition.
So with that out of the way, I contend that there’s reason for optimism with this team. Let’s look at a three year window, 2020-2022 because, if we’re speaking of building with youth, that’s when the crop comes together and gel as a unit, even though some will arrive earlier and of course many will go on to greater things beyond. As of the current presumed roster, at least 12 younger players are controllable through 2020 or beyond. They factor into this discussion as well. It’s also worth understanding that just as some players will be imported, some will leave, and sometimes the forwarding of the prospect implies the usurping of an incumbent who would still be under team control.
So, as we look at the rotation, let’s consider the SP projected to play most or all of 2018 for each full season affiliate in 2018 who might be SP for the Blue Jays in the 2020-2022 window. This is logical because if you assume a stair-step progression, a player in Lansing this year is a potential player in Toronto in 2022 (some will be faster or slower of course). Keep in mind that several of these guys would most likely end up in the bullpen instead, here I’m looking at major league potential in some capacity):
Toronto - Sanchez, Stroman, Biagini
Buffalo - Borucki, Pannone, Guerrieri, Reid-Foley, Rowley?
New Hampshire - Greene (hasn’t earned AAA yet IMO), Harris, Romano, Perdomo, Rios
Dunedin - Zuech (I expect early promotion though), Pearson, Maese, Murphy
Lansing - Yensy Diaz, Logue, Sellers, Dillon (those three based only on Vancouver results in 2017)
Beyond those, there might be lower level guys who advance more quickly but we’ll ignore those for now.
So a 2020 rotation might look like this - Sanchez, Stroman Borucki, Reid-Foley and one from among Biagini, Greene, Pannone and Zuech...or a wild card who bypassed many others on the depth chart like, say, Romano. Anyone from this group not in that rotation would be in AAA on the cusp (Zuech maybe) or a factor in the bullpen (Greene could be really good there). For speculative purposes, I’m going to assume Biagini or Pannone is holding down that fifth spot well enough to have kept it to this point.
After that season, Sanchez and Stroman are free agents and should the team lose both, Zuech and especially Pearson would be the front-runners to step in. With those two you have a rotation which is not set to lose another member to free agency before 2024 (it is not sane to speculate that far out except if you want to dream on Pardinho).
This is not a projected mediocre rotation, there’s legit reason to expect good results from the guys who made my speculative cut. Notice Jon Harris and his ilk are not dreamed upon. I’m not projecting people to “figure it out” here even though it’s certainly possible. I’d be asking you for too much to ask you to take it on faith that performance issues to this point would resolve.
Directly flowing from that you can discuss a bullpen which isn’t set to lose but one (Loup) of their current projected staff to free agency before the fall of 2020. So Osuna, Tepera, Barnes, Leone are all potentially mainstays that year along with up-and-coming Mayza, Ramirez, and maybe Dermody. Add to that fringe starters mentioned above who probably play up in the bullpen like Guerrieri, Rowley, Romano, Perdomo and maybe Rios. And Greene of course. But that’s not all. There are interesting options already pitching in relief in the high minors. Andrew Case, though not a ranked prospect, turned heads last year in New Hampshire and Arizona; Zach Jackson, the 2016 3rd round choice, hasn’t disappointed and will probably open the year as New Hampshire’s closer and could theoretically contribute in the majors soon; Jackson McClelland, Kirby Snead, Daniel Young, and Tom Robson all posted impressive results in Dunedin in 2017. This list is not exhaustive. At this point we’re approaching 20 potential options for seven or eight jobs. Yes, there will be failures, there will also be surprises.
Stepping into the batting order, the 800 pound gorilla is, of course, Vlad Guerrero, Jr. If Donaldson does leave after this season it’s all but certain Guerrero will get every shot to replace him, even if they have to employ a stopgap for some portion of 2019. If JD were extended, that simply means VGJ is the obvious successor to Smoak (a free agent after his 2019 option) across the diamond. But, for the purpose of this speculation, Vlad’s at 3rd, for at least the first few years, of his major league career. To his left, at some point, we find Bo Bichette. At the moment Troy Tulowitzki is under contract through 2020 and might be the nominal starter that year, or not, but at some point it’s all about Bo.
Down the line, maybe Logan Warmoth arrives in 2022 and someone has to move. Somewhere in this process you still have Richard Urena, in whom I have only tepid faith, but is well regarded, and who’s closer than Warmoth. Also in the mix is Lourdes Gurriel, Jr. who could, even starting sometime this upcoming season, factor in as at least a Zobrist-type plug-and-play infielder/outfielder, and at his peak, be a guy who could step in for a month or two and not kill you.
Over at 2B, Devon Travis is team property through 2020 (assuming health as with everyone), Aledmys Diaz (who might be the 2016 guy, the 2017 guy or something in between) through 2022, and beyond that point you’ll see the excess SS depth factor in there as well. First base might be an area of mild concern depending on how obvious successor Rowdy Tellez recovers, but there’s another option or two I’ll mention momentarily. If you’re not at least intrigued by an infield of Guerrero-Bichette-Warmoth-Tellez then you’re probably a committed pessimist.
In the outfield, while Pillar is here through 2020, a productive future probably doesn’t include him as a starter. What we do have is Teoscar Hernandez penciled into RF in 2018 (barring additions) which, uninterrupted, carries him through and beyond the window I’m discussing. Many, including me, are already counting the days until Anthony Alford takes Pillar’s job and allows us to stop worrying about CF for six years or more thereafter. In left, if we’re going to speak of young internal options who still have to start with Dalton Pompey. While he’s certainly been fragile to this point, I repeat that there’s no sane way to project the impact of injuries. Beyond those three, there are mostly bench type guys like Dwight Smith Jr, Roemon Fields, and Jon Davis. Any of whom can probably give you Carrera-type hitting and better defense. Below that you have dark-horse local boy Connor Panas, intriguing Edward Olivares, and maybe something Joshua Palacios. Other than Alford, there’s not the sort of stars here that can make you think “all star at every position” but it’s not anything like a wasteland anymore.
Behind the plate, if Martin departs after his contract expires in 2019 (I would not be stunned to see him at a much lower price stay on as a reserve/mentor/future manager but that violates my premise) it doesn’t take much squinting to see Danny Jansen step into the starter role after a year or more as Russ’ caddy and even less so to see glove-first prospect Reese McGuire as his backup. That leaves Max Pentecost unaccounted for, though he would certainly be the starter here if there were no doubts about his shoulder. But let’s assume for a moment that it won’t hold up. That doesn’t mean he has no path because he can hit. He could be the next regular 1B or, if that spot is occupied, he could slide into an Evan Gattis/Blake Swiehart type role in which he provides the very useful tool of “third catcher” while also slotting into LF, 1B, DH and just maybe 3B on occasion. A good team needs a good bench. By 2021 or 2022 Rley Adams will be on the cusp as well. He’s likewise a potential 3B/1B convert if the catching job is full or beyond him.
In this discourse I’ve not ask you to believe on too many guys with so-so potential (Panas, for example, has a chance but is nothing like a sure thing) and there are others who might surprise that I haven’t even brought up (Bradley Jones, Kevin Vicuna, Reggie Pruitt, Samad Taylor). It’s not like most of these players are ever going to sniff BA’s Top 100 list but a lot of very productive major league players right now never did that. Consider though, this home-grown lineup for say 2021:
1. Alford - CF
2. Travis/Gurriel* - 2B
3. Bichette - SS
4. Guerrero - 3B
5. Hernandez - RF
6. Tellez - 1B
7. Jansen - C
8. Pentecost - DH (rotating)
9. Pompey - LF
(if Travis is healthy Gurriel, like Pentecost, rotates through the positions to keep others fresh)
Is that the team that makes you laugh in derision at the Yankees? Probably not but it’s a fine foundation for the player moves that WILL happen as management seeks to upgrade the team. One final note on that - imagine that the only thing they do offensively is re-sign Donaldson - now take Tellez out (or move him to DH and take Pentecost to the bench) and re-imagine that lineup with both JD and Vladdy in it.
There’s little reason for us to imagine that some years long baseball winter is coming.
(also, off topic but, before you assume that 2018 is all some sort of management smoke and mirrors, go to Fangraphs and add up the projected WAR for the AL contenders and see where we stand before any major move - it’s better than you think even with the models selling the rotation short by, in my view, at least 4 WAR. Worry about 2019 if you must but otherwise, have hope)