There is no doubt that the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays are a better team than they were at the start of last season. Despite winning the AL East by six games with a record of 93-69 and leading the majors in runs scored, it wasn’t until the second half of the season after the Jays had acquired Troy Tulowitzki and David Price that they lived up to their potential. Up until that point, they had underachieved – as evidenced by their Pythagorean record of 102-60. Though there is no doubt that adding an ace to their rotation helped propel the Jays to their first playoff berth in 22 years, it was their near-historic offense that made them the team to beat. But this is 2016, so with the regular season set to begin this Sunday and the Jays poised to defend their championship title, let’s take a look at how their lineup stacks up against the rest of the American League East, broken down by position.
Note: the following 2016 projections are based on PECOTA and are current as of April 1st. A glossary of pertinent terms are included at the end of this article.
First Base: Chris Davis (BAL), Hanley Ramirez (BOS), Mark Teixeira (NYY), Logan Morrison (TB), Chris Colabello (TOR)
Waiver claim Chris Colabello surprised everyone with his breakout 2015 season, posting career highs in nearly every offensive category while offering decent defence at first. Though I expect some regression, I don’t think his numbers last year were a fluke and it would not surprise me if he plays first base more than 60% of the time. Slugger Chris Davis is a standout not only for his homerun power (he hit 47 last season), but also because while is walk ratio is great, his strikeout ratio is quite awful. Though he has a significantly higher VORP than the other four first basement, his higher WARP is negligible in comparison to the others, with the exception of Logan Morrison, who is likely to replace James Loney as the starting first baseman (Had Loney remained with the Rays, he would have been the only starting position player in the AL East with a negative projected VORP and WARP). Ramirez was an absolute bust last season for the Red Sox, playing in just 105 games due to a shoulder injury and posting the worst defensive rating among left fielders. It will be interesting to see if he can experience a bit of a renaissance despite having never played first base.
Second Base: Jonathan Schoop (BAL), Dustin Pedroia (BOS), Starlin Castro (NYY), Logan Forsythe (TB), Ryan Goins (TOR)
Dustin Pedroia is the only true star second baseman in the AL East, particularly for his defensive skills. The main barrier to his ability to contribute to the Sox this season is his health – he missed 69 games last season due to injuries. Castro was the one of the only notable offseason acquisitions made by the Yankees, brought over in a trade from the Chicago Cubs to replace Stephen Drew, who left the team as a free agent. Castro began playing second base late last season after losing his job as the everyday short stop due to poor offensive performance. His projected numbers would represent an upswing in his offense over last year. It is to be expected that Ryan Goins would have the lowest projections among second basemen given that he is, essentially, a replacement-level player. Though he is projected to contribute little in terms of runs scored or additional wins, his true value is his defensive prowess which, in combination with Tulowitzki at short, should save the Jays’ pitching staff plenty of runs.
*PECOTA projections list Goins as second on the Jays’ second base depth chart behind Devon Travis, with Travis starting at 2B 65% of the time. Projections have not been adjusted to account for the greater percentage of plate appearances that Goins will have due to Travis beginning the season on the DL.
Third Base: Manny Machado (BAL), Travis Shaw (BOS), Chase Headley (NYY), Evan Longoria (TB), Josh Donaldson (TOR)
Third base is truly the premier position in the AL East, led by reigning MVP Josh Donaldson and All-Star Manny Machado. While both have similar WARP contributions, Donaldson by far outperforms Machado in terms of runs contributed – an important distinction given that the Jays rely on their offense to win games and Donaldson sees a lot of good pitches to hit given that Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion hit behind him. Also, PECOTA tends to be lower on Donaldson due to his poor early career performances. Once one of the best third basemen in the game, 30 year old Evan Longoria has shown signs of defensive decline over the past two seasons, though he should still provide value on defense. In a surprise move on Thursday, the Boston Red Sox announced that Travis Shaw – not Pablo Sandoval – would be their starting third baseman. The move was unexpected, given the Sox’s financial commitment to Sandoval, but Shaw has outperformed him this spring and is a better defensive option. It is also interesting to note that Machado was the only player in baseball to appear in all 162 games last season.
**PECOTA has not yet been updated to reflect the fact that Travis Shaw won the starting job at third base over Pablo Sandoval and thus should have a higher PT%.
Short Stop: J.J. Hardy (BAL), Xander Bogaerts (BOS), Didi Gregorius (NYY), Brad Miller (TB), Troy Tulowitzki (TOR)
There is no doubt that Troy Tulowitzki is one of the premier players in the game today, and Jays’ fans have yet to fully witness his true talent. After being traded to Toronto on July 28th, he played in just 41 games after suffering a cracked shoulder blade in mid-September and, though that was a freak accident, staying healthy has always been a concern for Tulowitzki. A huge defensive upgrade over his predecessor at the position, his offensive production with the Jays represented a slump in comparison to his career numbers, He admitted at the end of the season that he had not yet felt comfortable with his new surroundings. PECOTA projects him to return to form this season – his 36.7 projected VORP is fourth highest among AL East position players (with Bautista and Donaldson sitting in first and second, respectively). Though the others really don’t come close to Tulo’s offense, Xander Bogaerts is one of the most exciting young players in the league, finishing second to Miguel Cabrera for the AL batting title and being awarded the Silver Slugger at his position. His projected PECOTA stats have him returning to earth just a little after his breakout 2015 season.
Left Field: Joey Rickard (BAL), Brock Holt (BOS), Brett Gardner (NYY), Desmond Jennings (TB), Michael Saunders (TOR)
Left field is not exactly a position of offensive prowess, and those who play the position in the AL East are relatively evenly matched. Michael Saunders was acquired in a trade from the Seattle Mariners to replace free agent Melky Cabrera, but missed all but nine games of the 2015 season due to injury. Jays’ fans who felt angst over the loss of Ben Revere should note that while Saunders’ projected numbers are not stellar, Revere posted a 10.9 VORP and 0.4 WARP with Toronto last season. Desmond Jennings also missed most of the 2015 season due to a knee injury and is a question mark in terms of how many games he will be able to play this season. Hyun-Soo Kim was expected to make his major league debut this April, having played for the KBO League in South Korea where he was a three-time Golden Glove winner and the 2008 batting champion. However, after struggling this spring, it was announced on Thursday that Kim would not make the Orioles’ Opening Day roster, but had refused a minor league assignment. Meanwhile, it is likely that Rule 5 draft pick Joey Rickard will take his spot in the lineup after hitting .390/.463/.576 with a 1.039 OPS in 67 plate appearances. After defecting from Cuba, Rusney Castillo was signed by Boston in 2014 for $72.5 million over seven years, creating much hype to which he has yet to live up. As a result, he has lost the starter’s job to utility man Brock Holt. Holt doesn’t hit for power, but he does get his bat on the ball with regularity. Brett Gardner, while still a solid player on both sides of the ball, should show some age-related decline, particularly in terms of his speed.
***PECOTA has have not yet been updated to reflect the fact that Rickard will likely play LF more than 30% of the time now that Kim is no longer being considered for the job.
****PECOTA has not yet been updated to reflect the fact that Holt has won the starting LF position over Rusney Castillo.
Centre Field: Adam Jones (BAL), Jackie Bradley (BOS), Jacoby Ellsbury (NYY), Kevin Kiermaier (TB), Kevin Pillar (TOR)
The AL East features a very strong contingency of center fielders, led by the stellar defense and speed of Kevin Kiermaier, who won the Gold Glove in 2015 over Toronto’s Kevin Pillar. Last season was something of a coming-out party for Pillar, who not only flashed the leather in the field, but performed better than expected offensively, batting .278/.314/.399 with a 22.3 VORP and 3.8 WARP. Though his primary value also lies in his defense and speed, Pillar is slated to be the leadoff hitter despite a less than impressive OBP. Of the five, only Adam Jones hits for power, though his tendency to be a free-swinger along with possible age-related decline led to a career low in batting average last season. Jacoby Ellsbury is also in danger of showing his age, batting just .244 after returning from injury last season. Jackie Bradley was called up last season to replace an injured Hanley Ramirez and despite going on a tear in August, batting .354/.429/.734 with an OBP of 1.163, is unlikely to provide much offensive value over the course of the 2016 season.
Right Field: Mark Trumbo (BAL), Mookie Betts (BOS), Carlos Beltran (NYY), Steven Souza (TB), Jose Bautista (TOR)
It should come as no surprise that Jose Bautista has the highest projected offensive numbers among the five right fielders – in fact, he has the highest VORP of any player in the AL East. Minor injuries notwithstanding, he has yet to show age-related decline. Instead, his plate discipline and power make him one of the most feared hitters in baseball. Combine that with the fact that this is his free agent year and that there may be no one more motivated to return to the playoffs, and one can expect Bautista to have another tremendous season. The only other noteworthy right fielder is the youngster Mookie Betts who, in his first full major league season last year, hit .291/.341/.479 with a 40.4 VORP and 5.5 WARP. Expect him to shine again this season. Souza was the centerpiece of the three way deal that brought Trea Turner and Joe Ross to Washington and Wil Myers to San Diego, but disappointed in his first season in Tampa. Trumbo has health concerns, and Beltran turns 39 in April, making both of them questionable in terms of their potential offensive production.
Catcher: Matt Wieters (BAL), Blake Swihart (BOS), Brian McCann (NYY), Hank Conger (TB), Russell Martin (TOR)
In his first full season with the Blue Jays, Russell Martin hit a career high 23 home runs despite a late-season slump. Those struggles were due to nagging injuries that were likely related to the difficult physical task of catching R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball. Having Josh Thole start the season with the big club ought to reduce the wear and tear on Martin’s body. He is similar to Brian McCann in that both provide pop at the plate but a low batting average, and both are in their thirties. Hank Conger is an interesting case in that he is one of the best pitch framers in the game but is absolutely terrible at throwing out base runners – the worst amongst all MLB catchers. Matt Wieters underwent Tommy John surgery in 2014 and played just 75 games for the Orioles last season, with a VORP of just 8.0, and should be average at the plate this season. Blake Swihart made his major league debut last season after injuries sidelined both Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan. He is projected to experience an uptick in offensive production this season, but should he falter, he could lose his everyday status to Vasquez.
DH: Pedro Alvarez (BAL), David Ortiz (BOS), Alex Rodriguez (NYY), Corey Dickerson (TB), Edwin Encarnacion (TOR)
Both Encarnacion and Ortiz have something to prove this season. Encarnacion is in his free agent year and will want to perform well – and stay healthy – in order to negotiate the best possible final contract of his career. Ortiz is on the other end of the spectrim, as he is retiring at the end of the season. Still, he would love nothing more than to finish his career as AL East champ. Though neither are the most valuable to their team in terms of additional wins, their bats contribute significantly to the offense, which is exactly what you’d expect from a designated hitter. Neither of the other three should factor into their teams’ potential success to any significant degree, though it will be quite interesting to see which Alex Rodriguez show up. Now that he is yet another year older, will it be the one who hit .278/.382/.515 the first half of the season or the one who posted a measly .216/.324/.448 during the second half?
Now that we’ve broken down the projected PECOTA statistics for every member of the starting lineup of the five American League East teams by position, let’s take a quick look at the collective projected VORP and WARP for each team.
|Boston Red Sox||171.8||19.1|
|New York Yankees||133.0||15.6|
|Tampa Bay Rays||166.1||23.8|
|Toronto Blue Jays||225.8||27.1|
The numbers don’t lie – the offensive juggernaut that is the Toronto Blue Jays starting lineup leads the AL East in projected VORP – by a huge margin – and WARP, suggesting that they will once again hit and field their way to wins. As long as the pitching doesn’t implode and the lineup remains relatively healthy, the Jays should be in the hunt – and, dare I say, the favourites – to defend their division crown.
Glossary of Terms:
PECOTA: Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm is Baseball Prospectus’ system to predict player performance based on comparison with historical player-seasons.
TAV: True Average includes factors not considered in other metrics, such as reaching base on error and situational hitting, and adjusts for ballparks and league quality. The baseline for an average player represents what a typical player would do if given similar opportunities.
VORP: Value Over Replacement Player represents the number of runs contributed beyond a replacement level player at the same position in the same number of plate appearances.
WARP: Wins Above Replacement Player represents the number of wins a particular player contributes to his team compared to a replacement player from the minor leagues at the same position.
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