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A Rumsfeldian look at the 2018 Blue Jays

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Donald Rumsfeld, Peter Pace, And Scooter Libby Discuss Their Work During The Bush Era Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

[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 know...it 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 made famous by Donald Rumsfeld in February 2002. For the the last couple years, I used it to categorize 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.

Then when the season ends, I can look 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. What follows is the same exercise for the 2018 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

  • Even with the above noted caveat that these are very high probability likelihoods rather than true certainties, I struggle to find anything involving regulars that fits here as has been the case the past couple years. Everywhere one looks, there’s at least a fair bit of uncertainty. On the mound, Estrada, Sanchez and Stroman have, to varying degrees, had big swings the past couple seasons. The pitcher with the surest outlook is probably J.A. Happ, a notion that boggles the mind of anyone who watched him from 2012-14. Around the diamond is much the same, as we’ll get to in the next section.
  • Here’s one though: the back-up catchers will be better. Last year’s group was historically bad, and through sheer chance alone the Jays should avoid rotating three backups who were significantly below replacement level. A healthy Luke Maile should be able to avoid 100 PA that at one point literally the worst such offensive player season ever recorded. I’m bullish on his ability to hit a bit, enough not to be a huge liability, but even if not one of Reese McGuire or Danny Jansen should be ready and able to step up and fill the void.
  • The Blue Jays will once again lead the league in fewest home rainouts.

Known unknowns

  • To revisit a question from two years ago: does Marcus Stroman establish himself as an ace? Stroman’s results (70 ERA-) were much improved even if the underlying numbers (88 FIP- vs. 86 in 2016) were similar. Regardless, if he were to broadly repeat the results over another 200 innings, that would put him in bona fida ace territory (top 10-15 MLB starters).
  • Is Troy Tulowitzki done as a productive major league player? Last year, the Tulo question here was whether after settling in as an above average regular in his first season and a half, he had another (mostly) healthy star level season. After a 2017 in which his offensive production cratered and he suffered a major injury from which he yet to recover, the question is the opposite: realistically, what is left of Tulo’s abilities?
  • Relatedly, in how many games will the prospective starting middle infield of Tulo and Devon Travis start? As I detailed in November, it’s been just 22% of the 405 games since Tulo was acquired. With Tulo out indefinitely, it’s frankly hard take the over on that historical number.
  • The starting pitching depth. In 2016 there was no need, and last year it was horrible. Can Joe Biagini be a quality back end starter? Is Ryan Borucki poised to step up if there’s a need a couple months from now? Deck McGuire had a strong 2017 and spring, and Taylor Guerrieri could factor in too. At the very least, the options seem more promising than last year.
  • The injury bouncebacks. Mostly obviously, if Aaron Sanchez can avoid or manage the blister issues and pitch 180+ innings, which may not quite the level of leading the league in ERA, but should be well above average. Then of course Devon Travis, but also Russell Martin, whose 324 PA behind the plate were exactly half of those accumulated at the catching position. Getting that number back to 70% or above would go a long way
  • The Cardinal bouncebacks. Aledmys Diaz, Randal Grichuk and Sweung-hwan Oh combined for 7.5 fWAR in 2016, but just 1.7 fWAR in 2017. The offensive breakout by Diaz in 2016 strikes me as the outlier to his broader offensive production, so I’m least optimistic about his ability to return towards the 2016 level. If Oh could split the difference that would be more than enough. The X-factor for me is Grichuk, even though he had the smallest decline. Even without fundamental changes in his swing-and-miss, I’d pin hopes on a power surge.
  • Can Justin Smoak broadly consolidate his breakout 2017 season? There’s a lot of concern based on his slump at the end of 2017, and I’ll have more on this soon. But the place to worry is more on replicating the plate discipline improvement than the dip in batted balls at the tail end of 2017.
  • What kind of season does Kevin Pillar have defensively? Last year he missed a number of balls early in the season, which may have been more positioning than anything. Later in the year he resumed the highlight reel catches and finished with strong defensive metrics (15 DRS, 6 UZR). However, Statcast metrics were far less flattering, with a decline from 15 outs average average in 2016 to -2 in 2017. Barring a significant increase in offensive production, where he settles going forward could be decisive to his future with the Jays and in MLB as he gets pushed by talented prospects from below.
  • Does Curtis Granderson have another good year left in the tank? He slumped badly the last couple months, but had a very good March. Keep an eye on the fly balls: last year he jumped to just shy of 50% and the AL East is the place to leverage that

Unknown unknowns

  • The broader backdrop of the AL East. Even if the Jays rebound and have a good year in 2017, will it be enough to seriously contend even for a wild card? Boston, New York, Cleveland and Houston are a cut above on paper, and should make up the division winners. The Angels made improvements and really just need to put a slightly above average team around Mike Trout; and Minnesota made opportunistic upgrades and benefits from 57 games against teams that aren’t really even trying in 2018.
  • Is this the year the farm provides a significant boost? In 2017, Rowdy Tellez struggled mightily and the entire AA rotation fell flat on its face, so there was no calvary to arrive. In addition to Borucki, Danny Jansen, Anthony Alford and Teoscar Hernandez could be candidates to change that, not to mention the rebounds from last years candidates or perhaps Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Richard Urena.
  • Which player takes the expected fundamental step forward (if any)? Last year Justin Smoak joined a line of surprise breakouts including Aaron Sanchez (2016), Liam Hendriks (2015), Brett Cecil (2013), Edwin Encarnacion (2012) and Jose Bautista (2010). Maybe Grichuk or Teoscar can cut back their strikeout rates?
  • The annual stand-by, what will be the crazy injury in 2018? 2017 added a season-ending separated shoulder on a home run swing to a pantheon that includes stumbling while bullpens emptied, sprinklers, fireworks, kitchen utensils and Tom single-handedly taking out 3/5ths of the starting rotation in one week.

Unknown knowns

  • Is Josh Donaldson healthy? The official line, strenuously and vociferously repeated, is that everything’s fine. He has just four singles in 27 at-bats this spring (33 PA). It’s not the anemic batting line (.148/.303/.148) that worries me, but the denominator. A healthy player, even a veteran, should have closer to double that by end of Spring Training, and then there’s taking a pass on Montreal. When healthy last year, he was the usual monster in the middle of the lineup. But trying to play through injuries early, he was not.
  • How much rope does Kendrys Morales have? If he puts up another two or three months of production more or less in line with 2017, will the front office be willing to bite the bullet and move on?
  • Is there any chance or seeing Vladdy or Bo in 2018? If they pick up where they left off in 2017 and mash their way through a couple levels, is a call-up at the tail end of 2018 even a possibility? Or for service time and 40-man considerations, is it essentially a complete non-starter?