Identifying the Blue Jays’ most meaningful early-season developments

Toronto Blue Jays' Teoscar Hernandez rounds the bases after hitting a home run. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

TORONTO – A few weeks ago, the Toronto Blue Jays’ season was just getting started. It was just last week that they played their home opener.

And yet by the time the Blue Jays landed in Baltimore late Sunday night, their season was already 30 per cent over. Their 7-11 record tells you they’ve been outplayed so far, and that much is undeniable, but in many ways how they arrived at that mark is just as important as the record itself.

Already the first few weeks of this historically short MLB season have provided important information about the Blue Jays and their players. Small sample size or not, here’s a closer look at a few early-season trends:

Not good enough defensively

Let’s start with an obvious problem. At various points this season, everyone from Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to Danny Jansen to Teoscar Hernandez to Bo Bichette has made costly defensive mistakes.

While the occasional miscue is inevitable, this group must be better collectively if they’re going to have any chance of competing. Twelve unearned runs in 18 games is simply far too much – especially for a team playing so many close games.

“We need to get to the next point and I know we will,” manager Charlie Montoyo said. “To beat these teams we need to play clean games.”

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Teoscar’s bat looks legit

Hernandez’s defence has been underwhelming at times this year, and it certainly cost the Blue Jays on Sunday afternoon. But in the big picture, the Blue Jays don’t need Hernandez to become a Gold Glover or develop elite plate discipline. If he keeps tapping into his power like this, the Blue Jays have a difference-making bat.

Hernandez, who lost his big-league job last spring before finishing the season on a three-month-long hot streak, has picked up where he left off in 2019. Not only does he have seven home runs and a .973 OPS, his quality of contact numbers are about as good as it gets.

The continued emergence of Hernandez counts among the biggest early-season positives for a team in need of answers in the outfield.

The perils of a young roster

It’s easy to forget this because of how long he’s been in the spotlight, but if Guerrero Jr. had gone to college this would have been his draft year. Instead, he’s playing his second full big-league season and that context is necessary as the Blue Jays evaluate Guerrero Jr.’s performance. With that said, the first few weeks of this season have underlined the work remaining for the 21-year-old.

On defence, it’s pretty apparent that Guerrero Jr. is still learning the nuances of first base. Even setting aside his two-error game last week, there have been missed opportunities that don’t show up on the scoresheet, such as the two pop-ups that fell behind Guerrero Jr. at Fenway Park. In time, first base will be easier than third, but he’s not making it look easy just yet.

On the bases, Guerrero Jr. may be a little more conservative than he was last year, and given that he now has 18th percentile sprint speed, that’s probably the way it should be. Guerrero Jr.’s really here for his bat rather than his legs or his glove.

As for his offence, Guerrero Jr. is showing progress after a slow start and now has a respectable 105 wRC+ on the season. The no-doubt home run he hit Sunday afternoon had to be encouraging, not only because it cleared the wall but because Guerrero Jr. waited for a pitch down the middle and launched it high in the air.

To this point in his MLB career, that combination of pitch selection and launch angle has been difficult to find, or at least to repeat. So far this summer, Guerrero Jr. is one for two. He’s chasing less, with a 28.6 per cent chase rate that’s down from last year’s 31.6 per cent mark, but Sunday’s home run aside he has actually been hitting more grounders than before.

In fact, Guerrero Jr.’s current ground ball rate of 61.4 per cent is higher than the career rate of ground ball specialists like Dallas Keuchel (58.9 per cent), Marcus Stroman (58.6 per cent) or Brett Anderson (56.9 per cent). Needless to say, the Blue Jays hope to see that change.

“Vladdy has not traditionally been a guy who’s been as aggressive as he’s been and chased as much as he’s chased and he’s put the ball in the air more,” GM Ross Atkins said last week. “Vladdy will adjust. He has the innate ability to manipulate the bat and the bat path and make consistent contact and I think really the biggest factor is not a significant fundamental adjustment, it’s not a significant mental adjustment. It really is for him to get more confident so that he’s sticking to his plan and approach and getting deeper into counts and swinging at balls that he can drive in advantage counts.”

Of course it’s not just Guerrero Jr. who’s learning on the job – far from it. Nate Pearson looked dominant in his debut and fared well in his second outing only to lose his command completely in his third start. Even role players like Reese McGuire, Santiago Espinal and Anthony Alford have started slowly at the plate.

“We’re really close to putting it all together,” Anthony Alford said of the team’s performance so far. “Everybody knows how close we are.”

The lesson here: even the best prospects have more to learn in the majors – and watching that process can test a team’s patience. Then again, a roster without any youth would likely have far less upside…

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The benefits of a young roster

Objectively speaking, it would have been unreasonable to expect Bichette to replicate his 2019 numbers in 2020. In 46 games last summer, Bichette hit .311 with 11 home runs and a .930 OPS – exceptional numbers at any age and particularly for a 21-year-old rookie.

If anything, though, Bichette was playing better than ever before the Blue Jays placed him on the injured list with a right knee sprain. Through 13 games, he was hitting .356 with five home runs and a 1.056 OPS. Montoyo described Bichette as a “star in the making” on Friday and his teammates agreed.

“His swing is as sweet as a right-handed swing can get,” outfielder Randal Grichuk said. “I’ve said it for months: I think he has a very good chance to be the best Blue Jays hitter ever. I know it’s a bold statement, but with his approach and his swing at such a young age, it’s next level.”

With each passing day, it’s becoming a little easier to believe that Bichette can in fact sustain last year’s success long-term. First things first, though, he has to come back healthy. An extended absence would test the Blue Jays depth and cost Bichette valuable reps. Either way, Bichette looks like this team’s most important player – now and in the future.

Sweet Relief

As recently as a few weeks ago, the Blue Jays’ bullpen remained a major question. Now, it looks like a team strength thanks to the emergence of Thomas Hatch, Ryan Borucki, Anthony Kay and Jordan Romano.

Veteran additions like Anthony Bass, Rafael Dolis and A.J. Cole have done their part, too, but really it’s the young arms that take the Toronto bullpen to the next level. Consider where they were last year, and the emergence of this group becomes even more remarkable:

• The Rangers selected Romano in the Rule 5 Draft, only to send him back to Toronto
• Elbow issues limited Borucki to two appearances all year
• When Hatch and Kay were acquired in trades for David Phelps and Marcus Stroman, respectively, neither was considered a top prospect

Now, those four arms make it far easier for Montoyo’s to navigate leverage innings. And whether they stay in relief roles or transition back to starting, all four pitchers are here to stay.

And the bottom line?

The first 30 per cent of the Blue Jays season wouldn’t convince anyone that they’re a likely playoff team. At FanGraphs, the playoff odds reflect that with a 22.2 per cent chance that the Blue Jays obtain one of the eight American League spots as of Monday morning.

With that said, there’s already more upside on this roster than there has been in years. So far, that youth has translated into more frustrating losses than gratifying wins. With six weeks of baseball remaining, the Blue Jays will look to change that story.

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