Jose Altuve Blue Jays

3 Things to Watch for Against the Astros

Written by Matt Gwin, Dave Church, and Dylan Svoboda

It Pays to Have Prospects in More Ways Than One

When baseball fans generally think about prospects, they tend to think about them in one of two ways: they either dream on what they could be or they dream on what they could return in trade. For MLB organizations themselves, however, any homegrown player who graduates into a solid major league contributor is a success. The Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s of this world are fun, flashy, and worth fantasizing about, but they’re also far and few in between. There aren’t enough Vlad Jr.’s to fill each teams’ top prospect spot, yet alone one organization’s entire Top 10. Good minor league systems, however, have prospect depth to round out the other nine spots.

The Astros have a very good minor league system.

The last time that the Blue Jays faced off against Houston, the Astros started 11 different players, five of which were homegrown, and another two of which were traded for and then developed. But perhaps more impressive, with the two of the ‘stros best hitters—Carlos Correa and George Springer—now on the disabled list, they’ve been promptly replaced by Derek Fisher and A.J. Reed, Houston’s 1st and 2nd round picks from the 2014 MLB Draft.

Derek Fisher was a Top 100 prospect in the mid-season rankings, and A.J. Reed ranked as high as 55 on a Baseball Prospectus Top 100 list. With that said, each have had their issues. For A.J. Reed, it was a struggle-ful first campaign in the majors last year, as he hit for a .532 OPS (yes, OPS) over 45 games in 2016. For Derek Fisher, it’s a tweener profile; a bat that projects as ever so slightly small for left field and a level of fielding that makes it difficult to see him play in centre. Yet, each was readily available following the Astros’ lineup’s loss of two major players, and each will make the pro-rated MLB minimum in 2017.

For some context, when two of the Blue Jays best hitters hit the disabled list this year—Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin—it was Ryan Goins and Jarrod Saltalamacchia who took their starting spots. Not quite the same level of upside there. Perhaps ole prospect-holding Mark Shapiro is onto something.

Sometimes A Split Is Worse Than It Looks

When the Jays last faced the Astros just prior to the All-Star break, they split the four game series, winning two games An optimist would say that the Jays managed a split against the best team in the American League.

While the wins and losses count the same no matter what, a split doesn’t quite capture how much better the Astros were than the Jays that series. The Jays were outscored by twenty runs over the four games, including an unfathomable deficit of twenty eight(!) in those two losses. That’s two touchdowns a game, or in Canadian football terms, two touchdowns a game.

In one sense, it was fortunate timing to come into the break off a couple of beatdowns that taxed the bullpen, but it probably didn’t feel great in the clubhouse to have that final 19-1 shellacking sitting on the brain over the break. It was probably a good indicator of where the Jays stood in the American League pecking order: well below the elite teams.

Things have changed a little in the ensuing time, however. The Jays have lost Troy Tulowitzki to injury, and traded away Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith. The return of J.P Howell has been met with a collective shrug. The Astros (who, of course, got Liriano) have injury troubles of their own, with all-stars George Springer and Carlos Correa out already, and having placed relievers Michael Feliz and Tony Sipp on the disabled list in the past couple of days. The Astros have some depth to play with, but those injuries might have closed the gap between them and the Jays.

Still, there’s no longer any illusions about how good these Jays are, this far into the season. With three games on the docket, a split won’t be possible. It’s difficult to play spoiler two months away from the playoffs, and even more so when the Astros are fifteen games clear of their closest competitor. This series- the rest of the season, really- is about finding out what the Jays have, and what’s worth keeping around for 2018. Seeing who shows up against the American League’s best team might help them figure that out.

New Team, New Role

On July 31st, the Blue Jays traded lefty starter Francisco Liriano to the Houston Astros in exchange for veteran outfielder Nori Aoki and outfield prospect Teoscar Hernández. This weekend, just five days later, the Blue Jays are making their way down to Houston to square off against the Astros and Liriano.

Liriano started eighteen games for Jays this year, posting a 5.88 ERA and a 5.37 DRA. He struck out just 8.1 per nine innings, his lowest since 2011. His groundball rate is down to 44 percent, after being above 50 percent every year since 2012.

It’s safe to say Liriano won’t be starting any games for the first-place Astros. The Astros are going to use Liriano in relief, presumably as a lefty-specialist.
Liriano has been dominant against left-handed hitters throughout his career. Left-handers own an OPS of just .599 against Liriano throughout his major league career, compared to an .726 OPS for right-handed hitters. His career groundball rate against left-handed hitters is 13.2 percentage points higher than it is against right-handed hitters (59.5% vs. 46.3%). He has had a much easier time with the free pass against lefties also. His career walk rate against lefties is just 8 percent, compared to 10.8 percent against righties.

Despite his struggles in 2017, he has remained dominant against left-handed hitters. He has struck out twenty-seven percent of the sixty-three batters he has faced and walked just one. He allowed just one home run to a left-handed hitter all year.

The Astros have potentially found themselves a shut-down lefty specialist in the thirty-three-year-old. The move to Houston, and the bullpen, might just be the next turn in the rollercoaster career of Francisco Liriano.

Lead Photo: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports

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