What happened in 2019?
With a record of 67 wins and 95 losses, last season was down there with one of the worst on record for the Blue Jays. Indeed, it saw the team continue along a path of steady decline that they have been experiencing in recent years (2017: 76 wins, 2018: 73 wins).
The year boiled down to pitching and rookies – specifically pitching troubles and rookies providing fleeting moments of joy.
In July, the Blue Jays traded immensely valuable starting pitcher and Toronto’s WAR leader Marcus Stroman to the New York Mets for prospects Simeon Woods Richardson and Anthony Kay. While this may turn out to have been a wise, 3D-chess style move, at the time it was met with dismay from fans, particularly given the state of the organisation’s pitching. The fans’ derisory attitude to this move was only worsened by GM Ross Atkins discouraging, slightly sinister statement that the trade was a success on the basis that it had resulted in a significant increase to the number of years of control the club had over players.
It was in this climate that Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo jokingly quipped, when asked who would be the starting pitcher for an upcoming game, that it would be “an opener and a guy”. While honest, it was painful to hear those frank words. By the end of the season, the Blue Jays had used an eye-watering (onion-esque rather than object-of-desire-esque), and almost record-breaking, 21 different starting pitchers. This cast of sorry sods combined to be 21st in the MLB-wide ERA standings.
The happier half of the tale, however, was that 2019 saw the arrival to Toronto of the much-hyped group of young All-Star-progeny: Cavan Biggio, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. Vladdy topped the hits leaderboard for AL rookies and set a Home Run Derby single-round record with 29 long balls. Bichette immediately hit for 11 games in a row in a rocketing start to his MLB career. Biggio became only the third player in Blue Jays history to hit for the cycle. These rookies were a much-needed breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale season.
At the beginning of September, the Blue Jays were swept by the Braves and the Rays to go seven games without a win, and it became increasingly obvious that there was a real danger of the team reaching the diabolical 100-loss mark. However, the team rallied and avoided this calamity, winning five of their last six series to end the season on a high note.
Moves & shakes
OUT: Justin Smoak, Clay Buchholz, Richard Urena, Breyvic Valera, Derek Law
IN: Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shun Yamaguchi, Travis Shaw, Anthony Bass, Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson, A.J. Cole, Joe Panik
One to watch: Bo Bichette
As much I tried to convince myself that another (less obvious) member of Toronto’s younguns deserved this obviously highly coveted spot, it is very hard to argue with Bichette’s 2019 numbers. With only around a quarter of a season under his belt, the 22-year-old racked up an astonishing 142 wRC+ and 2.1 bWAR. For those more interested in flourish than raw numbers, Bichette rounds the bases with a heavy dollop of seed spitting, chain swinging and magnificent hair tossing – the sort that wouldn’t look out of place in a Head and Shoulders advert.
Montoyo recently stated that Bichette was likely to be the team’s leadoff hitter in 2020. It will be a nerve-wracking but exciting time to see whether Bichette can maintain his previous form for the entirety of his first full season in MLB.
Five reasons for optimism in 2020
(1) The signing of Hyun-Jin Ryu brings one of the most extraordinary pitchers in MLB to Toronto. As set out above, pitching was very much a sore point for the Blue Jays last year and so his previous season’s MLB-leading ERA of 2.32 couldn’t be more welcome. It’s also hard to understate the benefit that his leadership and experience will bring to other pitchers in the organisation. Plus, I’m sure we can all agree that just regularly seeing his lovable, roguish face around is cause for optimism.
(2) Speaking of other pitchers, while the 2019 headlines were largely stolen by Toronto’s rookie batting talent, there is plenty to be optimistic about in terms of young pitching prospects. In particular, right-hander Nate Pearson comes in at eighth in Fangraphs 2020 prospects list and third in terms of pitchers. Another, younger right-hander, Simeon Woods-Richardson, also appears in the prospects list at 78th. Whilst Woods-Richardson may not break into the Blue Jays 40-man roster this season, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that we could see Pearson get his first call up for the Blue Jays.
(3) Have I mentioned yet that Toronto’s roster includes the offspring of three former All-Stars? I’m hopeful that Vladdy, Bichette and Biggio will all come out swinging this season and put up some big numbers (hits, walks, homers, I’m really not fussed) early doors to cement themselves as a force to be reckoned with, rather than just a flash in the pan.
(4) We remain in the AL East, which is admittedly a toughy given the recent dominance of the Red Sox and Yankees, but does have its upsides. For instance, it means that Toronto’s bats will now be tested against 2019 AL Cy Young runner-up, Gerrit Cole. The optimist in me says that the above-mentioned rookie hitters will relish this challenge and play up against him. Further, it means that Toronto are likely to see the familiar face of Kevin Pillar, now that he has joined the Red Sox. If last season’s reaction to Josh Donaldson coming to the Rogers Centre with the Braves is anything to go by, this will at least mean we get to enjoy a bit of nostalgia.
(5) Toronto catcher Reese McGuire has an upcoming court case for public exposure. Why is this a reason for optimism you might ask? Firstly, with no actual knowledge of the case or indeed the law, I am confident this will not derail his blossoming career for the Blue Jays. Secondly, again having done approximately zero analysis on the subject, I am also confident that, statistically speaking, there can only be a certain number of criminals on any one MLB team. If we can fill our quota with seemingly innocuous allegations such this that’s a win in my book.
[Editor’s note: If you are intrigued about the case and why McGuire said “I really shouldn’t have been doing that“, treat yourself to a subscription to The Athletic; it really is the best resource for informed, considered baseball news.]
Jack Ramsden is part of the team covering the Toronto Blue Jays for Bat Flips and Nerds in 2020. Follow him on Twitter @bernard_balks