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A Rumsfeldian look at the 2021 Blue Jays

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(FILES) In this 26 October 2006 file pho Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP via 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. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, I used it to categorize significant storylines as Spring Training ended that figured to impact the season ahead.

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, it’s useful to differentiate some of the uncertainty, and when the season ends, it serves as a useful lens through which to look back and examine how what we thought we knew stood up, how the major uncertainties were resolved, and what emerged from below the radar.

After a two year hiatus, what follows is the same exercise for the 2021 Blue Jays. In the trough of the rebuild two years ago, the framework wasn’t applicable given that 2019 (and indeed in a week straddling the beginning of the season the Jays dumped two projected regulars).

The plan was to return last year, and in fact this very post was created 396 days ago as I sketched out an outline as Spring Training got underway. And then of course came the impact of the ultimate unknown unknown which obviated everything before leading to the most unusual MLB season in history. I will touch on a few points that would have appeared last year. In turn, when the 2021 season ends, hopefully about seven months from now, we’ll see if they stand the test of time.

Known Knowns (very high probability likelihoods)

  • The position players will be above average. Between depth and impact potential, the collection of talent around the diamond is such that it’s a question of degree when it comes to how good they’ll be. If things go well, the 2021 lineup could rival the juggernaut of 2015. But absent a three standard deviation Armageddon scenario, even with a pile of injuries and widespread underperformance/regression, it’s hard to see how cumulatively it works out to below average production.
  • Conversely, piecing together quality pitching will be a challenge, and the opening day starting five will not throw 700 innings. One can envision plausible scenarios where the rotation ends up above average via combinations of bouncebacks, good health, and prospects stepping up. But one can imagine at least as many realistic ways it falls completely apart and undermines any chance of contention. It likely ends up somewhere in between but given the uncertainty, injury histories, low 2020 base loads and modern pitching management, the group that breaks camp is not going to pile up innings.
  • The tentative forecast in this space for 2020 was that “the Jays will not be as bad as in 2019. Probably not going to contend, but there’s simply too much talent to lose 95 games”. Which was in fact the case, though of course the did contend in an expanded postseason structure. I’m skeptical they would have meaningfully done so under normal circumstances fowever.
  • A Blue Jays pitcher will throw a pitch measured at 100 MPH. I like to throw in something on the more frivolous end, though it almost bit me three years ago when I predicted the Jays would again lead the league in fewest rainouts, and two weeks into April falling ice damaged the roof (not a rainout!). Per Baseball Savant, in the pitch tracking era, nine Blue Jays have thrown pitches released at 100 MPH. If not Nate Pearson, I’m confident someone else will.

Known Unknowns

  • Where does the team even play beyond May? Will there be two full years without baseball in Toronto? If the border remains closed, do the Jays decamp for Buffalo and/or make it their home for the remainder of 2021 if there’s no clarity on when they might be allowed in. If the border is opened, will fans be allowed (and if not, is returning to Toronto a real priority?)
  • Can Hyun-Jin Ryu stay healthy? Ryu turned in full seasons in six or seven KBO seasons, but in eight MLB campaigns has two full seasons (2012/19), two mostly healthy seasons (2014/17), two half seasons for markedly different reasons (2018/20), and two essentially lost seasons (2015/2016). A tenuous foundation could well collapse entirely if Ryu throws under 100 innings in 2021.
  • Can Pete Walker be the pitcher whisperer? The Jays are betting on two reclamation projects in Robbie Ray and Steven Matz, both pitchers with past success and retaining very good raw stuff with the hope that Walker can help get them back on track. Deeper pocketed team should be opportunistic in taking upside gambles as a matter of course, but the Jays are well beyond that in relying on both as rotation pieces on a win-now team. One of them turning in a good season (150 IP, average or better run prevention) would count as a solid win.
  • Was 2020 mostly a blip in the most unusual of circumstances after a very consistent career or mid-rotation solidness for Tanner Roark? Or were the Jays the bagholders who bought right before the end?
  • The Jays have stockpiled young arms on the 40-man acquired by various means in recent years, without extending much opportunity to get a look MLB starters. Do the Jays get some quality starting innings from the likes of Anthony Kay, or T.J Zeuch, or Trent Thornton (not quite the similarly situated).
  • Is Alejandro Kirk already too good a hitter to send down to the minors? He looked legit down the stretch in September and so far this Spring. Including Rowdy Tellez, the Jays already have 10 regular-type players to rotate through nine spots and sufficient positional flexibility to do so. There’s potentially an open catching spot if they’re over Reese McGuire, but it would seem like a waste to have him playing sparingly. Does Kirk force their hand anyway? If George Springer is out to start the season, does that open the door?
  • Is this Vladdy’s big year to click?
  • Can the Jays cobble together a decent bullpen despite the not investing much and suffering the loss of Kirby Yates between good performing holdovers (Jordan Romano, Rafael Dolis), converted starting prospects (RyanBorucki, Julian Merryweather) and free agents (David Phelps, Tyler Chatwood)?

Unknown unknowns

  • 2021 already has a clubhouse leader for craziest injury with Robbie Ray falling on stairs. Will anything surpass it to join the pantheon of damage caused by hitting home runs (Ceciliani 2017), running from the bullpen (Benoit 2016), falling asleep in saunas (Martin 2016), yoga poses (Estrada 2015), sprinklers (Saunders 2015), fireworks (Encarnacion 2010), kitchen utensils (Cecil 2010/2011/2015) and DAKERS (Danger to Arms Kaused by Exposure to Risky Spectator; Tom wiping out three-fifths of the rotation over a week in May 2013).
  • It seems every year there’s a surprise breakout out of nowhere, and on the pitching side that’s in play given how much is up in the air. On the position side, the more pressing matter is who consolidates gains from smaller 2020 samples. Teoscar Hernandez? Rowdy Tellez?
  • The lack of a minor league season last year makes measuring progress on the farm to evaluate potential help almost a complete unknown. Kirk aside, is there help to come?
  • Relatedly, the Jays’ last three first rounders have a combined total of one month of full season experience making them largely untested against higher level competition (in addition to less certainty in their progress). But if needed, could they be viable options in 2021?

Unknown knowns

  • With a 26-man roster and (unfortunately) no restriction on its composition, do the Jays go with 14 pitchers? And if so, how long until at some point it inevitably expands to 15 pitchers (as in 2019 when they briefly carried 14 pitchers and a two man bench). At this point they should know the answer even if we don’t.
  • More broadly, what does the pitching staff end up as? Other than Ryu, are the other starts going to usually be mostly twice through the order? Will that mean having some legitimate long guys in the bullpen to go at least once through the order to fill in gaps rather than a nightly cavalcade of purely short relievers? Or necessitate it?
  • Are the Blue Jays aggressively pursuing extensions with some of their young players, or generally content to let them establish themselves and pay the going rate wherever it lands?
  • If and when Nate Pearson is healthy, will they turn him loose? The talk is of managing his innings, but between modern game management and the groin injury to start, there’s no way he’ll exceed 150 innings anyway. It’s once thing to progressively build innings for young pitchers whose bodies are still growing and vulnerable to injury, but Pearson turns 25 this year and should be past that nexus. There’s a line between not wanting to cause long-term injury and getting value in the present, and in 20 years baseball has arguably moved from one extreme to the other.