Nearly everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Blue Jays last season. An absurd number of injuries combined with below-average depth players colluded to derail the Blue Jays’ 2017 season. With the exception of losing Aaron Sanchez for all but eight starts, leaving a gaping hole in the Jays’ rotation, these injuries took the greatest toll on the team’s offensive prowess. The Jays finished dead last in runs scored in the American League (fifth-last in all of baseball) and rolled through the entire 162-game schedule without ever reaching .500.
Working under the assumption that the Yankees, Astros and Cleveland will win their respective divisions with the Red Sox earning the first Wild Card spot, realistic expectations have the Jays vying for the second Wild Card. Both the Angels and Twins have improved their rosters this offseason and no doubt have their eyes fixed on a playoff berth as well. Everything must break right for the Jays if they are to return to the postseason, which means their run production has to improve.
Of particular concern when it comes to run production is the status of three-quarters of the infield. One can safely assume that Josh Donaldson will continue to be this team’s best hitter, but there are question marks surrounding the health and productivity of both Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki. Both played in fewer than half the total number of games last season and, when they did play, they under-produced. Justin Smoak, in contrast, did just the opposite: He appeared in all but four games and produced way above his career norms. He was so good that one can’t help but wonder if he’s set to turn back into a pumpkin.
What can fans reasonably expect from these three players? The answer lies in the projections.
Perhaps no one player on this team is shrouded more in injury speculation than second baseman Devon Travis. The 27-year-old appeared in just 50 games last season before undergoing knee surgery in mid-June to repair cartilage in his knee.
Travis has played in just 211 major-league games since the Blue Jays acquired him in 2015. Plagued by both shoulder and knee issues, one must assume that Travis will be unable to stay healthy all season. Offseason moves made by the Jays’ front office reflect this concern: The acquisition of middle infielders Yangervis Solarte and, to a lesser extent, Aledmys Diaz, addressed the uncertainty surrounding the ability of both Travis and shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to play something resembling a full season. However, while Tulowitzki is projected to play at least 100 games by Steamer, ZiPS and PECOTA, there is a discrepancy between projection systems with regard to Travis’ ability to stay on the field.
Projections for Devon Travis’ 2018 Season
These three sets of projections represent both the best- and worst-case scenarios for Travis’ 2018 season. Both Steamer and ZiPS project Travis to play close to his career-best 101 games; PECOTA takes a much more cautious approach and projects Travis will fall just shy of the 50 games he played in last season. One can assume the first scenario would be satisfactory to the front office, as they clearly do not expect Travis to play a full schedule. The second scenario would mean another disastrous season for Travis and a heavy reliance on backup players.
As previously mentioned, the once-mighty Toronto offense simply could not outscore their opponents last season. With questions surrounding their starting rotation (can Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman be healthy the entire season?), the Jays must score more runs if they are to compete for the second Wild Card spot. Where does Travis fit into all of this?
Travis’ ability to stay on the field will have an impact on Jays’ lineup construction. When in the starting lineup, Travis is the most likely candidate to bat leadoff. Josh Donaldson, Russell Martin, Justin Smoak and Troy Tulowitzki are the only regulars who are projected, per PECOTA, to have an OBP at least ten points higher than Travis. (Tulowitzki drops off that list if using Steamer or ZiPS projections.) Tulowitzki has made it clear in the past that he does not want to bat leadoff, and the other three are power hitters who provide better run production if they are batting with runners on base.
The other implication of Travis’ health is the extent to which backup players will play a role this season. Darwin Barney and Ryan Goins combined for 112 games and 357 plate appearances at second base in 2017 – far too many plate appearances for a team struggling to score runs.
2017 Production from Blue Jays’ Starting Second Basemen
* Note: Aside from games and plate appearances, stats for Barney and Goins are for total games played.
Compare those numbers to the projections for Yangervis Solarte, who will get the vast majority of starts at second base when Travis is not in the lineup.
Projections for Yangervis Solarte’s’ 2018 Season
*Note: all values are for total games played, not just those at second base
Having a backup second baseman who can produce an OBP in the three hundreds and a slugging percentage in the four hundreds makes the potential absence of Travis and/or Tulowitzki much more palatable.
In fact, Solarte is better than a replacement-level player. Last season he hit .255/.314/.416 with 18 home runs and 64 RBI and was worth 1.2 WARP over 128 games while providing steady defense. Those numbers were down from a stellar 2016 campaign, showing that Solarte has the potential to be much more than just an adequate stopgap.
Troy Tulowitzki played in only 66 games last season, during which he slashed .249/.300/.378 and was worth just 0.3 WARP. He entered spring training this year dealing with bone spurs in his heel and has no timetable to return to game action. What are reasonable expectations for Tulowitzki this season? All three projection systems predict that Tulowitzki will play at least 100 games this season and will provide greater offensive production than he did in 2017 (although ZiPS is less certain of his ability to have a bounce-back season at the plate).
Projections for Troy Tulowitzki’s 2018 Season
These numbers are not nearly as good as what Tulowitzki was capable of at the peak of his career, but the age curve has been unkind to Tulo and fans should not expect him to ever again produce at the same level he once did. ZiPS appears to take this into consideration more than the other two systems, and has Tulo hitting for a lower average and only a marginally better OBP than he did in 2017. Steamer and PECOTA, meanwhile, predict a better season than last both in terms of his ability to stay on the field and contribute to run production.
As is the case with Travis, Tulowitzki is now backed up by a player capable of putting up numbers similar to, if not better than, his own in Aledmys Diaz.
Projections for Aledmys Diaz’s 2018 Season
*Note: all values are for total games played, not just those at shortstop
Neither Tulowitzki nor his replacement duo of Barney and Goins were very good at the plate last season. Should the 2018 projections pan out, shortstop will not be an offensive black hole this season regardless of who is playing the position.
The other major question in the infield is whether or not Justin Smoak can reproduce his offensive production from last season. We all know that 2017 was a surprise breakout year for Smoak, when he went from being a below-average hitter to slashing .270/.335/.529 while belting 38 home runs and driving in 90 RBI over 158 games, good for 2.6 WARP. Can he possibly replicate that production in 2018? Here are his projected numbers.
Projections for Justin Smoak’s 2018 Season
While all projections indicate that Smoak will not duplicate his All-Star season numbers, they also predict that Smoak will continue to produce well above his career average of .232/.317/.416. Steamer and ZiPS also predict that while Smoak’s strikeout rate ought to increase by about 3.7 percent over last year’s 20.1 percent (his career low), he ought to continue walking at about the same rate while hitting his second-highest home run total. All of this suggests the adjustments Smoak made prior to the 2017 season have indeed changed his approach at the plate.
What stands out in Smoak’s case, however, is the difference in projected wins above replacement. ZiPS is quite bullish on Smoak, both in terms of the number of games played and offensive value. Steamer and PECOTA have Smoak playing essentially the same number of games, but PECOTA is less confident in Smoak’s run production. Best-case scenario has Smoak producing 2.1 WAR; worst-case pegs him to be worth less than one. Every single win matters for a team fighting for the second Wild Card spot. The Jays need Smoak to produce at the upper end of the projection spectrum, especially given that his primary replacement at first base, Steve Pearce, is only expected to be worth 0.8 WARP for the entire season.
No one can predict injuries, as we learned last season, so whether or not Travis and Tulowitzki can remain on the field is almost a moot point. What matters more is that the Jays can now back them up with bench players who are likely to provide at or near the same offensive value. One has reason to be concerned as to whether or not Smoak will continue to rake at the plate, particularly given his drop-off during the last two months of the season. If the combined second base/shortstop position can produce more than the -0.1 WARP of the Travis/Tulo/Barney/Goins tag team in 2017, the Jays can rely less heavily on Smoak’s run production.
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