Jonah Keri’s Blue Jays Mail Bag: What does the future hold?

Jamie Campbell was joined by Blue Jays Director of Player Development Gil Kim, who explained the ins and outs of the team's farm system and how they are improving.

Welcome to our final Jays Mailbag of 2018! It’s been a challenging year in Jaysland, with the team on pace for its worst record in 14 years, franchise player Josh Donaldson traded for pennies on the dollar, crushingly disappointing seasons for young right-handers Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, and a long rebuild to come.

Still, the news isn’t all bad. Led by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Blue Jays boast an army of talented position player prospects, a revelation for a franchise whose last impact homegrown hitter was…Aaron Hill? Alex Rios?? Vernon Wells??? Those young players are the focus of today’s Mailbag. Let’s get into it!

Let’s take these one by one, Felix.

Ryan Borucki: Big-league roster. Borucki’s benefited from some good fortune in his rookie season, posting an ERA nine per cent better than league average through 15 starts on a park-adjusted basis, despite sporting a weak 15.8 per cent strikeout rate. But he’s always thrived on inducing weak contact, posting consistent 50 per cent-plus groundball rates in the minors, and a 47.6 per cent worm-burning mark this year with the Jays. This is a back-of-the-rotation profile, but even a team with championship aspirations would happily carry an average-ish starter making league minimum as its No. 5.

Sean Reid-Foley: Triple-A. While Borucki profiles as a decent innings eater, Reid-Foley wields near-elite stuff and lots of upside, with gaudy K rates in the minors and 32 punchouts over 26 innings in his young major-league career. Still, he doesn’t yet know where the ball’s going, as evidenced by the 16 walks and six homers he’s dished out to opposing batters in his first five starts. With only half a season of Triple-A work under his belt and plenty of kinks to work out, it would make sense to send Reid-Foley back to the minors for more seasoning, then call him up in-season once he’s more polished.

Jon Harris: Triple-A. Though he comes with the pedigree of a first-round pick, Harris hasn’t missed enough bats yet as a pro to show he can make an impact in the majors. Having depth arms at Triple-A is by no means a bad thing, though.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.: Triple-A. He would instantly become the best player on the Jays roster the day he’s called up. And they’re going to Kris Bryant him anyway. It stinks, but them’s the breaks until someone overhauls the current system.

In this MLB and Toronto Blue Jays podcast, Dan Shulman takes a look at the human side of baseball. Because everyone in the game has a story.

As poorly as this season went for the Jays, they did snap one unsavory streak, marking the first time in three years that they didn’t trot out the oldest roster in all of baseball. Instead, both Toronto’s position players and pitchers ranked sixth-oldest in the majors this year.

Moreover, management won’t need to make sweeping changes for this roster to get significantly younger; that’s going to happen organically. Thirty-somethings Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Curtis Granderson, and John Axford were already traded, and Marco Estrada’s about to hit free agency. Multiple other elder statesman will be free agent-eligible at the end of next season, led by Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales. Meanwhile, rookie Danny Jansen should break camp with the big club at catcher, while fellow prospects Guerrero, Reid-Foley, Bo Bichette, and others should muscle their way into regular duty with the Jays by no later than the Super 2 cutoff in June.

It would be a stretch to expect that youth movement to pay instant dividends, especially since the idea you propose to trade older players for prospects isn’t likely to bear much fruit, given the diminished skill sets and gigantic contracts that players like Martin and Troy Tulowitzki wield.

Still, when you see a team surge into contention out of nowhere, it’s almost always a team loaded with young talent that got really good quicker than anyone expected. This year, that was the Braves and A’s. If Toronto can amass a collection of young pitching talent that compares to the hit show on the way with Guerrero and company, another surprise leap could be just a couple years away.

Two reasons. First, Wins Above Replacement is not only a reflection of skill, it’s also a stat that heavily accounts for playing time. So a .300 hitter who racks up 600 at-bats will net a higher WAR number than a .300 hitter who manages just 300 at-bats, all else being equal.

It’s also worth noting that WAR for pitchers can be calculated in a couple of different ways. At Baseball-Reference, runs allowed per nine innings is used as a the baseline skill indicator. At Fangraphs, it’s based on fielding-independent pitching, meaning the focus is on metrics like strikeouts, walks, and groundball rate, while acknowledging that raw runs allowed can be heavily influenced by defence, luck, or both.

Thus the gap between Stroman’s Wins Above Replacement number and Giles’s is actually pretty wide, if we’re talking about Fangraphs WAR (often simply referred to as fWAR). While Giles’s 4.86 ERA as a Blue Jay is considerably lower than Stroman’s 5.54, Giles has served up home runs nearly three times more often than Stroman has on a per-inning basis, making Stroman’s fielding-independent numbers considerably better than Giles’s. Throw in Stroman tossing 102.1 innings this season compared to just 16.2 for Giles as a Blue Jay, and it’s Stro in a landslide — Giles’s quickly earned 11 saves notwithstanding.

The Jays hitters are certainly guilty of playing into the hands of opposing teams that shift a lot. Thing is, so’s just about every other team. When a defence shifts against a left-handed hitter, you’re usually talking about a hitter with considerable power. If that power hitter abandons swinging for the fences in favour of possible bunt singles, that in itself could be considered a loss.

Still, there’s room to sprinkle in a few bunts without neutering a slugger’s power. Lefty-swinging masher Carlos Pena was one of the most prolific power hitters of his era, topping 25 home runs six times, and peaking with a 46-homer season in 2007. He was also one of the best in the business at bunting for hits when defences shifted against him. Of Pena’s first 25 career at-bats that ended in bunts put in play, an impressive 15 went for hits, a fact that still makes Pena enormously proud to this day.

I wouldn’t necessarily advocate for more sacrifice bunting, given how rare it is for an American League team to improve its odds of winning with that strategy. But if the situation calls for it and an opposing defence more or less begs, say, Justin Smoak to lay one down… then sure, go for it! A hit is a hit.

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