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A final look back at 2019: moving past the teardown trough

Setting up 2020 as a season of transition

Rogers Center General

For the past few years in Spring Training, I’ve taken a look at the year to come in terms of a “Rumsfeldian” framework: the things we (think we) know, the things we know we don’t know, and the things we don’t know we don’t know. Then at the end of the season, before turning to looking ahead to the next year, it’s an opportunity to review how things went compared to expectation.

But I didn’t do either this past year, for the same reason I didn’t put together any team level projections either: with the Blue Jays finally committed to fully tearing things down, it would have been futile. Consider how different the actual 2019 playing time was allocated compared to the theoretical lineup I put together with existing players at the beginning of the offseason:

2019 lineup

Realistically, I knew that the exercise was purely a stab in the dark as opposed to an actual starting point for the next season’s team, but even then the degree of change was pretty jarring. Especially with how some of the moves came out of left field at unusual times.

Just 11 of the players slotted in that 25-man had significant roles on the 2019 Blue Jays, with two more (Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley) having some time. By contrast, in 2015 it was 19 (give or take) who were part of the next year’s picture and in 2016 there were 20. Six months before opening day we had a really good idea how those teams would look.

And even then a few of those 11 didn’t finish the season in Toronto, and a couple more have since moved on after the season. In all, just seven of the 25 slotted in for the active roster are even still on 40-man, and just 17 of 40-man in total. I don’t have another example of almost 60% roster turnover in a year or 15 months, at least in the recent past.

But we’re past that now. Even with some of the recent win-now free agent moves, I don’t see the Jays as imminent serious contenders, but they’re firmly in building mode as opposed to the tear down/rebuild phase. That’s not to say they won’t or shouldn’t trade major league assets (like Ken Giles), but the idea should be that the major league team always looks better than a year ago.

That’s most obvious putting together a prospective 2020 lineup, which was a much more straight forward exercise this winter. Cavan Biggio, Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. might not end up at second, short and third in the long run — but 2020 is about giving them every opportunity to prove they can handle those positions.

There’s two other imperatives in my view for 2020. The first resolves around working through and the logjam of outfielders, with a view towards determining who sticks and who goes for 2021. Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher are already out of options, so it probably should be make or break for them. Billy McKinney has the one last option, but might be in the same position given the overlap of similar profiles. And then there’s Teoscar, where my inclination would be to take him out of the field most of the time and see if there’s not some Edwin Encarnacion in him where not worrying about defensive misplays and just letting him hit can unlock more offensive production. It’s not the same level of skills, but even a poor man’s EE would be a worthy DH.

Finally, and perhaps not as obviously, is resolving the glut of 40-man starters without major league experience. I don’t mind that they brought in three veteran starters and will force the younger guys to bang down the door for opportunities. With injuries and maybe some trades, there will be opportunities. But beyond T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay and Jacob Waguespack who recently debuted, and Nate Pearson who will be soon, there’s Patrick Murphy, Yennsy Diaz, Hector Perez, Julian Merryweather and now Thomas Hatch occupying spots and burning option years.

At some point not only does that become not tenable, but you run out of options and the team is either forced to have them stick somehow or lose them. 2020 might be the year where some hard decisions get made about some of the above moving to the pen, or being put in a sink or swim position.

On a more micro-level as opposed to the bigger strategic picture, one thing that really stuck out in 2019 was how one dimensional the team offence was.

Looking at non-pitchers (all stats in this section), the Jays ranked 23rd of MLB teams in production by wRC+. That’s obviously not great, but it was a darn sight better than their rank when it came to getting on base, where their .305 mark was second worst ahead of only the woeful Tigers. By contrast, they were fine in terms of power, ranking 12th with a .192 ISO but at the cost of ranking 6th in strikeouts.

Looking at the player level, it’s clear why this was the case. 18 players posted at least 50 plate appearances last year, with only seven posting OBPs at or above the .327 league rate. Then there’s a gap to the next (Teoscar), who checks in almost right at the team average, with the rest all below average the team average and well below league average.

I’m not one to lament the marked decline in contact for more power and quality contact when contact is made (though at the very least I don’t think the league should be encouraging it with livelier balls), but a pile of home runs with the bases empty is not a great formula for run production. The front office has acquired a lot of hitters with power but on-base issues, and as the team moves to contention I think a focus has to be on at least finding more balance.

That’s probably not going to happen in 2020 though. There’s the solid core pieces who project to be players who get on base, but the challenge is underscored by the fact that of those seven competent on base guys, two are gone (Justin Smoak and Eric Sogard), and Reese McGuire had just 105 PA and not expected to replicate that. But as discussed above, 2020 is going to be about making decisions on some of these sub-.300 on-base hitters, and that means giving them rope and playing them despite frustrations.

But, you know, maybe we can avoid doubling down on the profile and acquiring more of them this year? Just a thought.