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A Rumsfeldian look at the 2017 Blue Jays

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[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

When thinking about risk and uncertainty, I often find myself coming back to the above framework popularized by Donald Rumsfeld in a February 2002 news conference. So much so, that this time last year, I used it to look ahead to the 2016 season and categorize some of the more significant storylines that figured to impact the season. It doesn't translate perfectly, since "known knowns" are actual facts as opposed to high probability likelihoods, and by definition unknown unknowns are events not foreseen; but nonetheless useful to differentiate some of the uncertainty in the season ahead.

After the season ended in October, I looked back through that lens to see how what we thought we knew stood up, how the major uncertainties were resolved, and what emerged from below the radar. With hopefully some lessons learned, what follows is the same exercise for the 2017 Blue Jays. When the season ends, hopefully about 7.5 months from now, we'll see if they stand the test of time.

Known knowns

  • The starting rotation will not be as durable. In 2016, the opening day rotation totalled 152 starts, and including deadline addition Francisco Liriano, that jumps to 160 of 162 starts. Granted Marco Estrada pitched through injuries, but still made 29 (mostly effective) starts. Simply put, even minor and fluke injuries happen, and it's highly likely the Jays see at least some "regression" here.
  • Likewise, the starting rotation will not be as effective at run prevention. In 2016, the Blue Jays ranked 3rd 2nd across MLB in adjusted ERA (89 85 ERA-) and a similarly impressive 7th 5th in adjusted FIP (94 95 FIP-) [ed note: initial numbers were for all pitchers, not just starters]. Again, this is a macro call on regression towards the mean rather than pessimism about individual pitchers: replacing Dickey and a full year of Stroman pitching like he did the second half actually present realistic opportunities for gains, but collectively they're coming from such a high level that falling back is very likely.
  • Kevin Pillar will not walk at a league average rate (or anything close to it). Hope springs eternal...and Spring Training eternally engenders dubious hope of positive changes and improvement. This year it's Pillar, who is talking up being more patient and sporting a ~10% walk rate. Superman is not going to be confused with an on base machine anytime soon. And that's just fine.
  • Josh Donaldson is going to bring a lot of rain

Known unknowns

  • Who is going to be the primary starting pitching depth? Last year the Jays had Drew Hutchison, who despite his inability to find his 2014 form was a quality option to have stashed in AAA. Joe Biagini and Mat Latos would appear to be frontrunners, but both could end up in the pen. Beyond that, probably Mike Bolsinger (if he clears waivers) or Lucas other words, Ross Atkins would be well advised to watch the waiver wire and veterans who opt out of minor league deals.
  • What's the answer in left field? The starting job was left pretty wide open coming into Spring Training, and that was before it turned into a MASH unit with Pearce recovering from elbow surgery, Pompey concussed, Carrera contused and Upton shouldered. Bring in outside help? Muddle through and hope it works out and address later if not?
  • How bad are injuries going to hit? The likelihood is that with historically injury plagued players like Devon Travis, Troy Tulowitzki and Steve Pearce, the Jays will rarely have their best lineup entirely on the field. The key will be hoping absences are not extended and spread out so as to not swamp the lineup.
  • Will the underbelly of the bullpen hold up? Roberto Osuna is a rock, Jason Grilli should be fine against righties and Joe Biagini figures to be at least solid (if in the pen). Beyond that...a couple of soft tossing veterans, who knows about a second lefty, some guys with big raw stuff but who haven't harnessed it. Bridging the gap between the starters and the backend figures to be tenuous.
  • Can Russell Martin rebound offensively? His strikeout rate spiked to 28% (previous high 21%) which dragged his production down significantly. Does this regress in 2017, or is it perhaps a sign of fundamental decline and the beginning of the end so to speak?
  • Quick hits: Can Bautista stay healthy in the outfield, while seeing his productivity rebound? Does Pillar have a little more in the tank offensively? Does the aggressive pursuit of Kendrys Morales end up as Happ 2.0 or a bad overpay? Has Tulo settled in as a solid-average player, or does he have a star level season left in him? Is this the year Stroman really puts it together?

Unknown unknowns

  • How long does Justin Smoak stick around? His production has been replacement level in Toronto for two years with a bad spring to boot, but there's the two year extension. Assuming he doesn't suddenly figure it out, will the front office be willing to admit error and cut bait to put the best team on the field?
  • Will the Jays receive unexpected help from the farm? Conventional wisdom is that the Jays have little in the way of prospects in the upper minors who are ready to step in as contributors, with Rowdy Tellez perhaps the closest. The new regime has not shown the propensity to accelerate prospects to the big leagues, but could a Conner Greene or Sean Reid-Foley bolster the bullpen at midseason? Could Anthony Alford or Lourdes Gurriel or even Richard Urena force his way up?
  • Who will take an unexpected fundamental step forward, if anyone? Last year it was Aaron Sanchez with significant command gains, before that Liam Hendriks and Brett Cecil making outsized velocity gains converting to relief and before that Bautista and Encarnacion.
  • What will be this year's crazy injury? 2016 turned out to be a banner year for this category, adding Joaquin Benoit sustaining a leg injury as the bullpens emptied in a brawl, Martin hurting his knee after passing out in a sauna and Estrada messing up with back with a yoga pose and aggravating it swinging to the pantheon of sprinkler, fireworks, kitchen utensils and DAKERS (Danger to Arms Kaused by Exposure to Risky Spectator) incidents.

Unknown knowns

  • Will Rogers permit a rebuild/reload? If the Jays underperform significantly in the first half and are effectively out of the hunt after the first half, they would have some expiring contracts that could bring back future assets. But with an aging team, the bigger question would be if they could realistically expect to contend in the near term beyond 2017. If not, moving other contracts with value for prospects to create a critical mass to contend in the medium term could be the best strategy. But with the big 2015-16 TV ratings and revenue gains, would Rogers condone or allow a strategy of short term pain for long term gain?
  • Is there a longer term aim to try Osuna as a starter? As long as the Jays are contending, there's no way he's going anywhere, but related to the above point if they fell out of the hunt and threw in the towel, a premium closer is of limited value. Would that be a catalyst to stretch him out?
  • Would the new front office pull the trigger on dealing significant prospects for rentals? While I certainly wouldn't expect them going full tilt like the 2015 trade deadline, they avoided doing so last year with the Jays in the thick of things. Was that just the way the deadline lined up, or reflective of a harder philosophical bent.