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Looking back at 2020

Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Nicholas T. LoVerde/Getty Images

For the second straight year, I didn’t get around to writing a “Rumsfeldian” outlook for the upcoming Blue Jays season during Spring Training. Before 2019, the framework didn’t really apply to a team in flux between finishing up a teardown and waiting for the next wave to come. This year I was just turning my focus to 2020 after all prospect lists in February (even having got the post started) when the season came to an abrupt and indefinite halt.

With the offseason about to begin, the focus turns to 2021 and soon I’ll be doing my annual lookahead breaking down the roster. But first, I do want to turn the page on 2020 with some parting thoughts on some of the bigger questions and pressing issues that were on my ind entering the season, and would have featured in a post had I got around to it.

How would Hyun-Jin Ryu translate to the AL East?

After a rocky start (and despite a rocky finish), Ryu was as good as could have been reasonably expected, posting a 2.67 ERA and 3.01 FIP in the significantly more offensive environment of the AL East. It’s one thing for a crafty lefty to make a bag of tricks work in the larger parks of the NL West, but his 61 ERA- and 67- FIP were in line with his stellar results the previous few years and ahead of his overall career rates.

He probably got a little fortunate in terms of home runs, with just 12% of fly balls leaving the park compared to more like 15% MLB wide, so that’s likely to regress against him, but he also upped his strikeout rate near a career high and if maintaining that would help mitigate that. As other have noted, the other thing to keep an eye on will be his velocity from start to start, and how effective he is when it’s done. But all in all, the only negative was that the circumstances limited an otherwise healthy and full season to 12 starts and 67 innings.

How does the outfield situation sort itself out?

Coming out of 2019, the outfield mix was highly unsettled. Randal Grichuk figured somewhere into the future by virtue of his long term extension, but he was yet to put everything together for an extended period. Teoscar Hernandez and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. had shown flashes of promise offensively, but with extended stretches of looking lost and significant defensive question marks that led to 2019 demotions. If that weren’t enough, Anthony Alford and Derek Fisher were out-of-options, plus Billy McKinney in the mix as a prominent acquisition.

12 months later, the situation is much clearer, at lest going into 2021. For better or worse, Alford and McKinney are gone (and I would have liked at least giving Alford a final look for the rest of 2020 with the expanded rosters). Fisher is...well, Fisher. Unless the front office has an about face and cuts bait before the spring, he slots in as the fourth OF for now. As for the other three

  • Grichuk had his usual uneven season, this year a torrid start flashing the promise of an improved approach where he was using the whole field. In the end, he was largely the same guy, albeit with a career low strikeout rate of 21%. Maybe there’s something to that. He might be ideally suited defensively to a corner, but in my view he was at least adequate in CF. Absent a real shake-up, I don’t see any way he’s not back there in 2021.
  • Tesocar was the obvious pleasant surprise of 2020 with a big breakout. I expect a fair bit of regression, but it’s not like he was hitting cheapies and despite elevated swing and miss tendencies that bat should play anywhere going forward. The bigger improvement might have actually been defensively, where there will always be some adventures but he was playable rather than atrocious. My view a year ago was to just move him to DH and maybe have an Edwin Encarnacion-type breakout if he can focus on his strength. I’m not sure long term that’s truly off the table, but for 2021 he definitely slots in right field.
  • Gurriel on the other hand didn’t have that kind of major step-change, but posted another two productive months that reinforce what he did after coming back up in 2019 and cement him into the left field starting position. The profile strikes me as a poor man’s Vlad Sr, with an innate ability to barrel up balls though short of the unparalleled contact ability to avoid strikeouts. But it looks like more than enough to be solid regular in an outfield corner.
Takeoff delayed at Nate Pearson

This was probably the most disappointing part of 2020 for me. Instead of getting five months and hopefully 25 starts to see what Big Nate can do, his rookie season was going to be abbreviated to a couple months and 10 or starts. And then it was further truncated to a tantalizing debut and a couple of ineffective starts before missing most of the rest of the season.

It almost certainly would have been beyond-the-pale unjustifiable (and ultimately unfair to Pearson) even with his limited AAA experience, but in hindsight the Jays would probably be better off had they just pushed things back another year and thus his control window to 2021-27 instead of 2020-26. But that notion is basically applicable to the entire young core.

Vlad and Bo

A big question was whether 2020 was going to be whether it was Vladimir Guerrero’s coming out party after competent rookie year at age 20 that was disappointing only in the context of enormous expectations. Instead, if there was arguably another disappointment in 2020, it was probably Vladdy — despite that he actually finished 2020 with a pretty productive 115 wRC+.

After showing in February in better shape, that form was gone when things resumed at June and he was quickly relegated to first base where there were definitely struggles. Whether that was a short term move forced by the drop in conditioning, or a long term switch giving into the likely inevitable is not entirely clear, but it increased the pressure on his bat.

And he struggled. While he hit the ball plenty hard on the whole, too often it into the ground and for lengthy stretches was all-too-beatable. All is not lost, he’ll still be just 22 next year and his plate discipline outcomes are very good; he’s not getting overmatched. But to take the next step and unlock the promise in the bat, he’s going to go have to elevate the ball more often.

With Bo Bichette on the other hand, the most disappointing thing at first glance is that he missed half the season as he was quite productive with a 125 wRC+ when on the field. And given how strong his debut was, largely replicating his 2019 level of performance represents a success.

But I can’t help but have some trepidation at the profile, at least in terms of his being able to maintain star level performance. His uber-aggressive approach results in plenty of wild swings-and-misses and a moderate strikeout rate, but without many walks to fall back on. The damage he’s done on balls in play has been more than worth it so far, but it’s only 340 PA and underpinned by a .361 BABIP. I’m not saying it’s luck; it hasn’t been. But what happens if pitchers figure out how to manage him and that goes even to .310 or .320? I have little doubt he’ll be a regular regardless. It’s not a fatal flaw, but a yellow flag.

Handling of the young pitchers

The Jays spent the offseason adding veteran starting pitchers to fill out the rotation, adding Ryu, Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson to Matt Shoemaker. Add in Pearson, and the bevy of young starters in the upper levels appeared ticketed to Buffalo unless opportunity presented or they banged down the door: Trent Thornton, Ryan Borucki, Jacob Waguespack, T.J. Zeuch, Anthony Kay and a little further Patrick Murphy and Thomas Hatch.

With no minor leagues and expanded rosters and pitching staffs, most of them instead were used in a supporting major league capacity. That made sense, but if there was one team level decision that disappointed me in 2020, it was using them largely in short relief capacities rather than in multi-inning roles going at least once through the order were they could stay stretched out and their ability to turn over a lineup evaluated. Instead, the bullpen was chronically short and overworked, and when starters went down there was no one to fill the void.

Consequently, going into 2021 there’s very little added clarity where there was opportunity to have some even short of what a normal 2020 would have provided. They have announced that Borucki and Murphy will be relievers going forward, which raised by eyebrows. I understand it with Murphy where there was a good chance of it anyway, but it was coming together for him a starter before his 2019 was derailed with a ticky-tacky ruling on his delivery and subsequent/related injury, and then 2020 by a once in a century pandemic. With Borucki, while I understand the inclination given how the stuff ticked up in short bursts, I think it’s hasty given the success he had in 2018 and his ability to make adjustments and tinker.

Quick Hits
  • Rowdy for real? I had Rowdy Tellez on the roster fringe after 2019, and I’m still not sure he’s a regular, but he took some intriguing steps forward.
  • Storms or Merryweather? Julian Merryweather finally was healthy and impressed early...and then he got hurt again.
  • Will Ross Stripling and Tanner Roark rebound? Both were quality midrotation performers for years leading into 2020. Both had completely forgettable seasons, but will be around next year. In more normal circumstances, can they right the ship? The starting pitching was largely a disaster, and them bouncing back is critical to stabilizing the rotation and the team taking a step forward.