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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Gap to gap: What will really decide fate of Blue Jays’ offence?

So, what happened to the Toronto Blue Jays this off-season?

The long and short of it is the club finished runner-up to the Los Angeles Dodgers following a full-court-press recruitment of generational icon Shohei Ohtani, were out-angled again by the Dodgers in pursuit of young fireballer Yoshinobu Yamamoto, were out-bid by the Yankees for rental of all rentals Juan Soto, and out-bid again by the Mariners for underrated infielder playing out his team-friendly deal Jorge Polanco.

Amidst a weak free agent position player market, headlined by Cody Bellinger’s uncomfortable combination of high asking price plus troubling peripherals, and with a farm system short of 50+ grade talent, making it not only difficult to swing significant trades but imprudent to do so two years prior to a competitive window potentially closing, the Blue Jays took the sensible yet uninspiring, rational yet frustrating path they wound up on to the drab off-season outcome we see today.

Kevin Kiermaier returns to solidify MLB’s best outfield defence of 2023; Isiah Kiner-Falefa adds versatility and strong glovework to a muddled infield picture; Justin Turner seeks to replace the production and poise lost by the departure of Brandon Belt; Yariel Rodriguez provides insurance for a pitching staff that remained remarkably healthy last season. Maybe there’s one more move to come — a right-handed hitting outfielder for the bench or a spring surprise of something splashier. Plenty of free-agent talent remains available should the Blue Jays seek it.

For now, the moves are lateral at best, which tells you something about how the Blue Jays feel the pieces they’re carrying over from 2023 are positioned to perform in 2024. And objective projection models agree with their optimism. PECOTA sees Toronto finishing the season in the American League’s top wild card spot; ZIPS has them tied with the Yankees for that same position; FanGraphs, which blends ZIPS with Steamer, projects the Blue Jays with the AL’s fourth-highest WAR total.

How is that possible with Belt and Matt Chapman — a duo that produced a fifth of Toronto’s extra-base hits and nearly a quarter of its walks last season — out of the picture? Because those projection systems are forecasting significant offensive improvement from several core players who are still around:

2023 wRC+

Steamer 2024 wRC+

2023 OPS+

ZIPS 2024 OPS+

Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

118

144

117

134

Alejandro Kirk

96

122

93

109

Daulton Varsho

85

105

85

109

George Springer

104

116

102

110

We’ll see how it plays out. At this time last year, few predicted the Texas Rangers or Arizona Diamondbacks even playing in October, let alone against one another in the World Series. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees, San Diego Padres and New York Mets were widely expected to compete for pennants — not to miss the playoffs altogether. The only thing close to certain today, with a mere eight months between now and the post-season, is that all of the attention paid to Toronto’s this-for-that, edge-of-roster augmentation will ultimately miss the plot.

The Blue Jays having a successful season isn’t about the parts of the team that have changed — it’s about the ones that remain the same. It’s about a pitching staff that was exceptionally healthy and productive in 2023 outrunning the regression monster and repeating its success. It’s about Daulton Varsho running towards that regression and being closer to the 105-107 wRC+ player Steamer and ZIPS project him to be than the 85 wRC+ one he was last season.

It’s about Danny Jansen being healthier and Alejandro Kirk looking more like the 2022 version of himself than the 2023 one. It’s about Orelvis Martinez, Alan Roden, Damiano Palmegiani, or a developmental player we aren’t even talking about right now charting their own ‘Babe’ Schneider arc.

And, most importantly of all, it’s about the three hitters who made the most plate appearances for the Blue Jays last season — George Springer (683), Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (682), and Bo Bichette (601). Three players who, if healthy, ought to lead the Blue Jays in plate appearances again. The players who will receive the most opportunity to drive this offence. As those three go, the Blue Jays will go.

Here are a few simple heuristics. For this to be an above-average offence — one that ranks No. 11-15 in runs scored — Toronto will need at least a repetition of the wRC+ Springer (104), Guerrero (118), and Bichette (125) produced last season. For it to be a good offence — ranking No. 6-10 — Bichette will need to sustain his wRC+ while Springer and Guerrero produce levels closer to his. For it to be a great one — top five — all three will need to improve, with either two finishing above 130 or one surpassing 140.

It’s really that simple. Good teams need good performances from good players. Great teams get great performances from great players. Each of the top five run-scoring offences last season rostered at least one qualified hitter with a wRC+ north of 140 — a great player on a great team. The No. 6, 7, and 8 offences each had two regulars post a wRC+ of 123 or higher — multiple good players on a good team.

Meanwhile, of the six hitters to make over 450 plate appearances for the Blue Jays in 2023, only one had a wRC+ over 118: Bichette at 125. Toronto had a stable offensive floor, finishing fifth in the AL with a 107 wRC+ as a team and getting decent down-roster performances from supporting-cast players such as Belt, Jansen, Kiermaier, and Cavan Biggio. But they lacked an exceptional producer in an everyday role. And thus, fell well short of being the top-five offence it was in each of the two seasons prior.

In 2021, Guerrero’s elite 166 wRC+ — a great player on a great team — turbocharged an offence that also received strong seasons from Teoscar Hernandez (132 wRC+) and Marcus Semien (131). In 2022, the Blue Jays had five qualified hitters finish with a 129 wRC+ or higher — several good players on a good team.

Consistently over time, that’s how the league’s best offences have been built — around at least one elite offensive player who makes at least 500 plate appearances, or several qualified hitters who are a tier below elite but still solidly good-to-great. Teams succeed or fail on the backs of their best players. And for the Blue Jays this season, that falls at the feet of Bichette, Guerrero, and Springer.

This may all sound a tad reductionist, but sometimes we overcomplicate this silly game. Sometimes we get caught up in the marginal differences in projected statistics between veteran DHs. Sometimes we worry too much about handedness among bench players, power potential in the lineup’s bottom-third, and how to optimally deploy part-time players. Sometimes we spend entire spring trainings debating which out-of-options depth player a club should go with in its 26th roster spot. Just last year, Otto Lopez was the guy who dominated that conversation. Just last week, Lopez was designated for assignment.

Sure — depth, versatility, and lineup construction are important. Teams ought to spend energy maximizing every micro-advantage they can throughout the regular season, optimizing matchups and putting players in the best possible positions to succeed in pursuit of any available percentage point on the margins. The small stuff matters, accumulates, and compounds over 162. You can squeeze out an extra win here and there by majoring in the minors.

But, ultimately, the biggest contribution to Toronto’s success or failure in 2024 will come from the performance of its top players — the ones who make the most plate appearances and pitch the most innings. For the Blue Jays offence to perform well in 2024, Springer, Guerrero, and Bichette must be the driving forces. As those three go, the Blue Jays will go. The rest of it is just keeping us busy until we reach the result.

Arden Zwelling is an on-field reporter for Blue Jays broadcasts on Sportsnet. Gap-to-gap is his regular space for expanded Blue Jays and MLB notes, thoughts, and non-sequiturs that don’t quite fit on TV..



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