We finally made it, everyone. Winter is over, the sun is shining - not where I am, but presumably somewhere - and it’s once again time for baseball. In a couple of hours, the New York Yankees open their 2018 season in my hometown, taking on the Toronto Blue Jays.
To celebrate, I touched base with Tom Dakers, the tireless managing editor of Bluebird Banter, and we talked about floors, ceilings, strikeout rates and Vlad freakin’ Guerrero. You can find the transcript below, edited for brevity and quality.
There were whispers over the winter that Rogers was looking to sell off the Toronto Blue Jays. Was there ever any truth to this or were they just rumors?
It seems that it was just a Rogers executive thinking out loud. Nothing came of it. I think it would be very short sighted of them to sell since Rogers owns a half dozen sports cable channels. The Blue Jays give them a good amount of content and at little cost since they own both sides.
The past offseason for the Jays (signings/trades) seemed to focus on raising the team’s floor, especially in the outfield with the signing of Curtis Granderson and trading for Randal Grichuk. Was this the intention of the front office, and do you think it’s an effective strategy?
It seems like what the team wanted to do was to improve depth and improve defense. Last year went off the rails because of injuries and stars aging. At Triple-A they should have prospects Teoscar Hernandez, Anthony Alford, Dalton Pompey and Dwight Smith Jr.
Like most of the MLB teams, the Jays seem to have decided that signing free agents - at least ones that might command more than one year - is a bad idea - Mr. Rogers wants to know if you can say collusion - and really, for them it might be. After this year, the Jays don’t have much money tied up in long term contracts, they’ll have a fair bit of flexibility, and they have some excellent prospects who will be ready to join the team in the next couple of seasons.
With the rejuvenation of the outfield, what becomes of Steve Pearce, Hernandez, and the others who filled in those spots last year and are still on the roster?
Pearce will be in a platoon in left with Granderson, as well as spelling Smoak at first base on occasion. In a perfect world management would find someone willing to take Kendrys Morales off their hands and Pearce would DH. DH would be a much better choice for someone with his ability to pick up injuries.
Teoscar is having a great spring and is making it tough for the Jays to send him down at the end of camp. Realistically, unless they trade off Pearce - or if they can find some team dumb enough to take Morales off their hands - Hernandez will start the season in Buffalo. He will be battling with a few players to be the first one called up if there is an injury.
There is a question of whether the team would be better off with Hernandez over Pearce. Hernandez is better defensively and could play all three outfield spots. He has a ton of power (and also strikes out a ton), but Pearce has the veteran union card.
Do Dalton Pompey and Anthony Alford see significant time with the big-league club this year, and in the case of Pompey, are there any symptoms of prospect/development fatigue with him?
Personally, I was hoping the Jays would shop Kevin Pillar this winter, opening a hole for Alford. He’s the type of player the team claims to be wanting, the athletic type with great speed, gap power, and a good understanding of the strike zone. If Pillar has a poor start to the season, I can see the team wanting to make a change.
Pompey missed almost all of 2017 with a concussion, suffered in the WBC. I don’t know what the front office is thinking on him. I am afraid that he missed his moment. He has been passed by Alford and Hernandez on the depth chart. He’ll need a very good start to his season in the minors to put himself in position to get a call up if there’s an injury. Pompey is a real favorite of mine; great speed, terrific base stealer and excellent defense. An injury free season would help a lot.
One of the biggest problems with the Jays last season were the number of injuries up and down the roster. The biggest losses were certainly Aaron Sanchez and Josh Donaldson. Do Jays fans/management expect healthy seasons from them in 2018?
Expect? I’ve grown to expect injuries. It’s kind of my default position.
Sanchez has looked great this spring. We were watching carefully, every start, to see if he was checking his fingers for blisters. There wasn’t any sign. I’d imagine blisters will be part of the rest of his career, but I’m expecting the team will be able to deal with them better in the future.
Donaldson was slowed by a calf sprain or something they could call a calf sprain this spring. He hasn’t played a lot of defense. He’s always going to have leg cramp type problems but I’m expecting he’ll play more than the 113 games he played last year.
Troy Tulowitzki and Marcus Stroman have had some health scares in spring training. What’s the contingency if Stroman should miss regular-season time, and what’s the plan for the games Tulo is seemingly destined to miss every year?
Stroman missed a couple of weeks with inflammation, but the plan is for him to start the fourth game of the season. He has made 65 starts over the last two seasons, and he’s a very determined - determined is a polite term - young man. It will take more than inflammation to keep him out of a regular season start.
Joe Biagini will, most likely, be the first one called up if a starting pitcher must miss a start. He bounced back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen last year. I like the idea of him starting in the minors, then, if he’s needed, he’ll be stretched out to be ready to go six or seven innings.
Tulo? Most of us are expecting that he’ll start the season on the 60-day DL. And, honestly if he never plays the Jays picked up Aledmys Diaz and Yangervis Solarte to fill in for the often injured Tulo and Devon Travis. After giving 950 PA to Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney last year, they wanted back ups who might be able to hit their weight. Neither Diaz nor Solarte look to be great defensively at short, but they should be able to hit a bit. Danny Espinosa - who you guys know better than I do - was picked up to give us a defensive replacement late in games.
Justin Smoak was one of the best hitters in baseball in the first half of 2017, then cooled off slightly in the second half, posting a more-than-acceptable 118 wRC+. Is his breakout sustainable (especially his K-rate drop) and do we expect to see more first half Smoak, second half Smoak, or 2016 Smoak going forward?
Good question. I have no idea. I’d say that he’ll end up somewhere in between, but since he had a -0.4 bWAR in 2016 and a 3.2 bWAR in 2017, somewhere in between would describe 90% of the players in baseball.
I’m hoping that last season’s breakout was because of a real change he made to his swing, not because of a random fluke season. There is a reason he was a top prospect. It does take some longer than others to reach their potential.
How good is Vlad Jr? Is he actually an infield version of Mike Trout? When can we expect him to debut, assuming that he stays healthy and continues to develop the way we’ve seen?
Vlad, Son of the Impaler, just turned 19 last week. I think the team intends on having him play out 2018 in the minors, more as a way of extending control than anything else. I think he could play in the majors now, though. The only reasons I can imagine him coming up this year for are:
- If they trade Josh Donaldson at the deadline, but they want to keep some of us attending games at Rogers Centre.
- If Kendrys Morales is as bad as many of us fear he might be and the team stays in the race and needs the boost.
I don’t think either are totally outside the realm of possibility, but I think it is far more likely we’ll see him sometime in 2019. It would be nice if Vlad and Bo Bichette could come up at the same time.
Most casual observers probably see the Jays’ system as very top-heavy, with elite level talent (Vlad, Bichette, Alford) and then a bunch of names that are less notable. Who outside of that top crust of prospects are Jays fans excited about?
Nate Pearson, a pitcher picked up in last year’s draft, can throw a 100-mph fastball. He’s at least a couple of years awhile from the majors.
Danny Jansen is a catcher who is very good defensively and hit .323/.400/.484 across 3 levels of the minors. He’ll start the year in Triple-A but, if Russell Martin were to miss any significant time, I think he’d be called up. Next season is the last year of Russell Martin’s contract with the Jays. I think Jansen be up with the Blue Jays then so that he can be mentored by Martin.
Ryan Borucki is a lefty starter, and will also start in Triple-A, but if he pitches well, he could be high on the list anytime we need a spot starter.
The AL seems to have the “big four” teams at the top (NYY, CLE, HOU, BOS), and the teams that we know will be at the bottom (DET, CWS). Where do the Jays, as constructed, fit in that middle range of AL teams? Are they the favorite for the second wild card?
Last year the team got off to a horrible start. If they can avoid the 1-9 start and stay reasonably healthy, they should be a favorite to get a wild card spot.
Thanks very much to Tom for his time, and I reciprocated by answering a few of his questions about the superior team in this opening series. You can find that conversation here.