On Tuesday at FanGraphs, Jeff Sullivan asked his readers “What if the Twins Won the World Series?” Although the question was an interesting one, what interested me more is the cause for the article to be written in the fist place. The Twins lost 102 games in 2016, and have now clinched a spot in the postseason just one year later (the first team to ever do that). That’s a remarkable turnaround, but one that is a lot less shocking than it would have been had it occurred, say, 10 years ago, before the advent of the second wild card.
Although the Twins will be in the playoffs this year, they aren’t elite. They’ll probably finish the season with about 85 wins, or about nine more than the Blue Jays will have come next week. At the start of the season, the Blue Jays were unanimously picked by the major projection systems to be better than the Twins. BP had the Blue Jays’ playoff percentages at 27.3% with the Twins at 20.5%, while FanGraphs had the Blue Jays at 52.1% and the Twins at 5.1%. The Twins just weren’t supposed to be a good baseball team, while the Blue Jays were supposed to be decidedly mediocre. What happened is that the Blue Jays were bad, and the Twins were mediocre. However, mediocre plays in today’s MLB.
Specifically, the American League is very top heavy. I define a good team as one that doesn’t flirt with .500 much. Any team with at least 87 wins would be good by my definition. There are only four teams that meet that standard in the American League. There were five last year, and four the year before that. Six each of the two years before that, and seven in 2012. The great thing about this is that there are five playoff spots available, so if a team is fine – not good, not bad, just fine – they can remain in the race until very late in the year. That means not selling at the deadline, and that means increased ticket sales and tv ratings throughout the end of the season.
So where are the Blue Jays in all of this? We all watched the team this year and we all saw a product on the field that seemed to just be bad at winning ballgames. But that isn’t the truth. The truth is that injuries and complete meltdowns by key players sunk this club. Jose Bautista’s 10th percentile PECOTA projection entering the year was a TAv of .269 and a VORP of 17.6. That means that the absolute worst scenario that PECOTA foresaw for Jose Bautista was .269 and 17.6. What has actually happened is that Bautista has hit for a TAv of .237 and has actually had a VORP of -4.0. For Kendrys Morales, his .253 TAv is about in line with his 20th percentile projection of .251. Those are two cliff-like drop offs that could not have been expected.
A replacement level team according to FanGraphs’ version of WAR would win 48 times throughout a season. That means that a playoff team in the American League will likely need to be worth about 38 wins above replacement in 2018. From some rough projections, I figure that the Blue Jays can get about 35 WAR from the players they currently employ. That math is pretty rough, but I think it is actually a little pessimistic on certain players. However, what those numbers presume is that the Blue Jays aren’t getting negative value from any specific position. I made the Blue Jays bench a net zero WAR bench and their last two relievers with zero WAR each. That would be a major improvement over this season where the Blue Jays have lost 5.3 wins from batters performing below replacement level and 3.0 from pitchers. Add an extra eight wins to the Blue Jays right now and things look a lot different with a weekend to go in the regular season.
What that all means is that the Blue Jays have a pretty easy path towards competing for the second wild card spot in 2018. How can they do it? How can they make like the Minnesota Twins and go from bad to mediocre enough to make the playoffs? Well, a bit of good luck would help, but short term free agents would help as well. Creating a bench that isn’t awful would go a long way. There are opportunities to improve at both outfield corners, as well as the back of the rotation. Adding a few players who aren’t stars, but aren’t as awful as Ryan Goins and Kendrys Morales have been, on one year deals, can help this team transition to the fire power that awaits in the minor leagues for 2019.
Trading Josh Donaldson closes the curtain on competing in 2018. Keeping him and the rest of the core around (minus Bautista and Morales) allows this team to be in it next season. Making sure that no roster spots are going to below replacement level players can avoid the problems that befell the team this year and can allow the players who are actually good to not be sunk by their peers. The Twins are making the playoffs this season because they were fine. Nobody has been saying that they want to watch the Twins, because they aren’t a sexy team. They are mediocre. They get the job done. In today’s American League, that’s all that needs to happen. Creating a floor of replacement level will allow the the Blue Jays to do just that, if they so please.
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