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A Rumsfeldian look at the 2022 Blue Jays

Breaking down the knowns, unknowns, and everything in between

Rumsfeld And Myers Hold Pentagon Briefing Photo by Mark Wilson/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 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. After a two year hiatus in 2019-20, it was back last year and what follows is the same exercise for the 2022 Toronto Blue Jays (if slightly belated).

It doesn’t translate perfectly, since “known knowns” are actual facts as opposed to high probability likelihoods, and by definition unknown unknowns are foreseeable events. 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.

Known Knowns (very high probability likelihoods)

  • The Blue Jays will not underperform their run differential by eight wins again in 2022. It cost them a playoff berth in 2021, and given that it keeps happening to the franchise I’m not foolhardy enough to declare there won’t be some headwind. But since only one or two teams will post that kind of underperformance per season, I’m confident lightening will not strike twice. And hey, maybe this is the year they actually get a tailwind in a competitive year (okay, that’s probably too much to ask).
  • The core positional infielders will not be as healthy as in 2021. Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Marcus Semien and Bo Bichette played 161, 162 and 159 games respectively, combining for 2,112 plate appearances. Even if Semien were back, the odds of all three once again avoiding even minor injuries that cost games would be slim, but substituting Matt Chapman with more injury history further reduces the odds to effectively nil.
  • Santiago Espinal will regress. In 2021, he exceeded a expectations of being a quality depth option with 2.8 bWAR and 2.2 fWAR in 246 plate appearances. The strong defence is plausibly replicable, but well-above average offensive production to the tune if 115 wRC+ is almost certainly not. In particular, his .353 BABIP is likely to fall back and even the 12% strikeout rate seems unsustainably low.
  • The Blue Jays will not have three home stadiums in 2022. 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!). Hopefully it will be just the one home park, but three (or arguably four given the “home” game in Anaheim) is out of the question.

Known Unknowns

  • Will Hyun-Jin Ryu rebound and how much? He stayed largely healthy last year with his highest innings since 2013, but regressed significantly from the ace level performance of 2018-20 (2.30 ERA/54 ERA- and 3.06 FIP/70 FIP- in 332 innings). It’s likely too much to hope for a rebound anywhere near that, but crafty lefties are often ageless wonders so even at 35 there’s good reason to hope for something in between.
  • Does the starting rotation end up merely good or elite? This is somewhat tempting fate, but between talent and depth, things would have to go really pear-shaped for the rotation not to end up league average. It lacks a true ace, but Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios give them two frontline starters, Ryu has been at that level as recently as 2020 and though Alek Manoah lacks the track record (and consistency), he could plausibly contribute at that level.
  • Can Pete Walker work his magic with Yusei Kikuchi? After the stunning success with reclamation projects Robbie Ray and Steven Matz in 2021, Kikuchi would appear the most obvious candidate to have significant potential unlocked.
  • Can the Jays avoid the bullpen becoming a costly hole again? For the second straight winter they didn’t invest much in only adding Yimi Garcia. Last year the depth was exposed when some of the holdover performers struggled and younger pitchers were hurt or didn’t step up. Having Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards already in the fold from midseason trades helps, but the back half still has plenty of question marks.
  • What kind of rebound does Cavan Biggio have? 2021 was a weird season, in which he never seemed comfortable from the get-go amid the position switch, hit the IL, was back to his usual level of productivity when he came back for a month before getting hurt again. I thought he looked much more like the 2019-20 guy at the plate this spring, and expect he gets back to(wards) that level. So much so, I almost put this in the above section, but realistically even for a bull it’s more a likelihood than very high probability.
  • Does Matt Chapman have more 2018-19 MVP-level seasons in him, or post-injuries of the last couple years does he settle in as “merely” an above average regular as in 2021? If there a ~5 WAR middle ground?
  • Is the year Alejandro Kirk really clicks at the plate? Between his video game minor league numbers and flashes in the majors, the potential to be an impact bat is right near the surface. Between DH and catching, does he stay healthy and put it together?

Unknown unknowns

  • Will any 2022 injury 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).
  • Is there a surprise breakout? It seems unlikelier than most years, given how many positions and rotation spots are filled by established veterans, reducing both the candidates and opportunity. Other than the aforementioned Kirk and Kikuchi, is this perhaps the year Danny Jansen takes a step forward with the bat? Perhaps an arm in the bullpen really clicking (Merryweather? Thornton? Dare one suggest Pearson?)
  • With the upper level depth depleted by trades, does the farm provide any significant reinforcements? Is there an opening and does Gabriel Moreno make an impact? Otto Lopez prove ready?
  • Are the Orioles the X-factor in how many playoff teams come out of the AL East? Given the bunching of four plausible contenders, the division is wide open. It’s not impossible all four could make the playoffs, or conversely that they bludgeon each other and only one one or two narrowly nose through. The critical factor here could be the difference between the Orioles remaining total doormats and winning ~55 games or taking a step forward towards 70. A majority of that would accrue to the other division winners, and 2-3 wins apiece could be the margin.

Unknown knowns

  • To largely repeat a theme from last year, when Nate Pearson is healthy/recovered from mono, what’s the plan? Turn him loose in the bullpen for one inning? Multi-innings? Use the reset to build him up in Buffalo? If the former scenario given the need to win-now, has the ship sailed on starting, or could there be a Chris Sale scenario down the road if he demonstrates effectiveness?
  • Would the front office pull the trigger on a blockbuster? Austin Martin aside, thus far the Jays have avoided trading the very cream of the prospect crop in the many deals over the past 20 months. If they’re in the hunt come the deadline, is a Moreno or Orelvis Martinez on the table for a big upgrade? Or given an apparent multi-year contention window, are they unwilling to short it by trading the likeliest future impact regulars?