Blue Jays report card: Full grades for every key player

Teoscar Hernandez continued his tear for the Blue Jays with a homer but the Red Sox won 10-7 to move closer to clinching the AL East.

After two straight trips to the ALCS at the end of more than two decades of playoff-less baseball, the Toronto Blue Jays returned to MLB purgatory, finishing last in the AL East in one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history.

Still, there were some bright spots mixed in with those tough times, some decent performances tucked away in a season many will want to forget. Here then is our season-ending Blue Jays report card, with grades for every key player.

Infield

C Russell Martin, C

It’s easy to see Martin’s 2017 campaign as a disappointment. He’s hitting .221. He’s played in only 90 games. He’s 34 years old, and thus in danger of further decline. Most damningly, he’s being paid $20 million a year this season, and then again in 2018 and 2019.

But Martin remains an important part of this Jays team, and one of the best players on the roster. His huge 13.9 per cent walk rate fuels a solid .344 on-base percentage. He’s a skilled game-caller. And at a position that’s woefully thin across the league, Martin’s also the best the Jays have, or are likely to get without making a trade that cuts deep into their talent base. If the Jays do bounce back next season as GM Ross Atkins projects, a healthy Martin playing 120-plus games would likely be a big reason for that success.

1B Justin Smoak, A+

As a first-round draft pick and top prospect, Smoak never lacked the skills to succeed at the big-league level. He just kept struggling to unlock them. Credit the work he put in with a sports psychologist, or his return to hitting more fly balls, or the livelier baseball that drove a power surge across the league, or natural progression with experience, or all of the above. Whatever your favourite explanation may be, Smoak might hit 40 home runs by year’s end, while making a shade over $4 million. In terms of baseball moves, that’s as perfect as it gets.

2B Devon Travis, F

Earlier in the season, I gave Travis a grade of Incomplete, on the theory that he didn’t have a chance to prove himself since he’d been on the disabled list for so long. But as unfair as it might sound, health is a necessary skill — or at least a necessary set of circumstances — for a player to succeed. Travis missed 61 games last year, and he’ll end this season having missed 112.

SS Troy Tulowitzki, F

Tulowitzki didn’t fare much better than Travis in the health department this season, missing 96 games. Maybe more frighteningly, his bat produced a meagre line of .249/.300/.378, and his defensive value dropped to its lowest point in years. Between Travis’ health concerns and Tulo’s, the Jays should be shopping for middle-infield help this winter, so they can have better alternatives than Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney if and when something goes wrong.

3B Josh Donaldson, B

The Jays’ best player yet again this season, Donaldson shook off a slow start to the season that included injuries and spotty performance, and now sports offensive rate stats right in line with his standout showings in 2015 and 2016. Deduct a few points for defence that’s gone from Gold Glove-calibre to merely pretty good, as well as for playing in fewer games than he has in five years. The Jays seem all but certain to go into 2018 with Donaldson as their starting third baseman, despite his pending free agency at the end of next year. If anything, you wonder if management might make an attractive contract extension well before the subject of possible trades comes up.

Outfield

OF Ezequiel Carrera, C-

He’s a perfectly fine fourth outfielder who’s overmatched as anything more, given his defensive limitations and lack of power. If the Jays fancy themselves possible contenders next year, that means they’ve either gone out and acquired an upgrade over Carrera at a corner-outfield spot, or the next guy on this list has grabbed his starting job and run with it.

OF Teoscar Hernandez, B+

On Tuesday, Hernandez clocked the second multi-homer game of his very young career, and he’s now slugging .667 through his first 24 games as a Blue Jay. Striking out in one-third of his plate appearances is troublesome, and we can’t get a full read on Hernandez until we have more data to examine. But the fact that the Jays could even entertain the possibility of having a starting corner outfielder next year (and for the five years to follow) in exchange for two months of Francisco Liriano is a minor miracle.

OF Steve Pearce, D-

Can’t field, can’t run, didn’t stay healthy, and didn’t even hit left-handers (.209/.237/.437), the job he was paid to do. Not great.

OF Kevin Pillar, C+

His hot start to the season notwithstanding, Pillar quickly resumed being the hitter he’s always been, a high-contact, low-walks, low-power guy who’d barely make a roster if not for his glove. Fortunately for the Jays, that glove remains elite, making Pillar the third-best all-around position player on the team this year, behind only Donaldson and Smoak. Still, Pillar is into his arbitration years and thus no longer cheap, plus he turns 29 in January, which makes you wonder if he truly has any offensive upside to offer. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine him becoming trade bait this off-season, especially if management believes that talented young speedster Anthony Alford is ready for his closeup next spring.

Bench, D

Among the Jays’ numerous problems this year, a weak bench was quietly among the worst. Granting that any team losing its starting third baseman, second baseman, and shortstop for extended stretches would be hard to handle, but Barney, Goins, Rob Refsnyder, Chris Coghlan, and friends weren’t anything close to adequate replacements. And while finding a great backup catcher can be a tough task when your starter is a $20-million-a-year guy with little to no chance of losing its job, the Jays’ inability to develop a quality receiver in-house, and their failure to acquire anything even remotely close to a Russell Martin Plan B via free agency or trade hurt the team a great deal this season.

Pitchers

SP Marcus Stroman, A-

A rare beacon of reliable performance on an otherwise erratic team, Stroman will clear 200 innings for the second straight season, a distinction only seven other pitchers will be likely to claim at the end of this weekend. In fact, by innings, strikeouts, walks, home runs, batting average on balls in play, and his elite over-60 per cent ground-ball rate, Stroman’s put up as close to identical numbers as you’ll see from any pitcher over the past two seasons.

His ERA dropping from 4.37 all the way to 3.06 this year mostly comes down to a big spike in his strand rate: In 2016, 31.4 per cent of the runners Stroman put on base came around to score, compared to just 22.2 per cent in 2017. That’s almost entirely a function of luck, and also a pretty good indicator that Stroman is neither the league-average pitcher that last year’s ERA would seem to suggest, nor the borderline Cy Young candidate that his ERA might denote this year… he’s somewhere in between, a good-to-very-good pitcher who gets by on command and tons of ground balls, without devastating swing-and-miss stuff.

SP Aaron Sanchez, F

As with other injured Jays this season, this grade simply comes down to injuries that were out of Sanchez’s control. The good news is that blisters aren’t remotely the same thing as, say, major shoulder injuries. Sanchez led the AL in ERA in 2016, and the hope is that he can return to something close to top form in 2018.

SP J.A. Happ, B

He ends this season with nearly 50 fewer innings, and (not that we should care at all about this stat) 10 fewer wins than in 2016. Still, Happ’s a strikeout-an-inning pitcher who provides quality innings almost every time out, and the Jays have to be thrilled with the three-year, $36-million deal they gave him two years ago, given how out of control the cost of pitching has become in today’s game.

SP Marco Estrada, C-

Like Stroman, Estrada hasn’t pitched all that differently in 2017 compared to 2016 – it’s just that one stat skewed his overall line. In Estrada’s case, giving up a career-high 30 home runs hurt, especially since he’s a pitcher who makes a living off throwing high in the zone and inducing lots of harmless fly balls. Estrada’s pitched much better down the stretch, and the one-year, $13-million deal Toronto gave him to remain their No. 4 starter next season was a wise, low-risk move.

SP Joe Biagini, C-

When you lose the defending ERA champ for nearly the entire season, have no MLB-ready starting pitching prospects in the high minors, and tap a bullpen arm to try to fill the void, you take what you can get. Biagini battled gamely in his transition to the rotation, and could be a playable No. 5 starter next year, if the Jays don’t find any better options over the winter. The bet here is that they look for something better anyway, giving Biagini a chance to improve his numbers as he returns to the much easier role of relief pitching.

RP Roberto Osuna, B-

He leads the majors in blown saves, and there’s no sugarcoating it. But again, if we isolate component numbers like strikeouts, walks, and home runs, Osuna hasn’t pitched any worse than he did last year; he’s actually improved in all three of those categories. Assuming he can shake off the minor injuries that occasionally bothered him this year, he should settle back in as a quality closer for the future… even if many might overrate the value of that kind of player.

Rest of the bullpen, B

All things considered, not bad at all. The Jays pen ranks seventh in the majors in Wins Above Replacement, getting a quality contribution from free-agent signee Joe Smith (before he got traded away) and also surprise contributors like Dominic Leone and Ryan Tepera. Teams don’t need to spend wildly to field quality pens. The downside is that whether you shop aggressively for relievers or not, you also often have no idea what you’re going to get.

…and finally,

Jose Bautista, A+

We don’t remember Willie Mays as a Met. And while 2017 was rough, years from now, nobody will remember that Bautista’s Blue Jays career ended in rough fashion. What matters is years of dominance, a better Jays career than any other position player in franchise history, a permanent spot in the hearts of Jays fans, and of course, this: