2018 finish: 73-89, Fourth in AL East
SI's 2019 prediction: 75-87, Fourth in AL East
Key additions: SS Freddy Galvis, SP Matt Shoemaker, SP Clayton Richard, RP Bud Norris, SP Clay Buchholz
Key departures: C Russell Martin, SS Troy Tulowitzki, INF Aledmys Díaz, INF Yangervis Solarte, SP Marco Estrada, RP Tyler Clippard
1. 3B Brandon Drury
2. RF Randal Grichuk
3. LF Teoscar Hernández
4. 1B Justin Smoak
5. CF Kevin Pillar
6. DH Kendrys Morales
7. 2B Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
8. SS Freddy Galvis
9. C Danny Jansen
C Luke Maile
IF Richard Ureña
OF Billy McKinney
RHP Marcus Stroman
RHP Matt Shoemaker
RHP Aaron Sanchez
RHP Trent Thornton
LHP Clayton Richard
RHP Ken Giles (closer)
RHP Bud Norris
LHP Tim Mayza
RHP Joe Biagini
RHP Daniel Hudson
LHP Thomas Pannone
RHP Sam Gaviglio
RHP Elvis Luciano
Injured list: 2B Devon Travis, OF Dalton Pompey, LHP Ryan Borucki, RHP David Phelps, RHP Ryan Tepera
Movin’ On Up!This one comes with a huge caveat. If Aaron Sanchez is healthy, he can easily be the most important piece of this rotation. The 26-year-old’s last two seasons have been hugely frustrating, with blisters either hindering his performance or keeping him sidelined essentially the entire time. But you can still see the talent here that was evident in Sanchez’s All-Star 2016 season, and it’s been on display during a sharp spring training. If Sanchez avoids the blisters and he induces groundballs like he used to, though, Sanchez might not only rebound but bounce back higher than he ever has.
Sell!Kevin Pillar’s stellar glove used to make up for his middling bat. But the centerfielder is now 30, and his defense seems to have declined accordingly. That’s usually not a trend that will reverse itself, and he hasn’t shown any offensive growth to balance it out.
Appreciate This Man!Randal Grichuk will probably never do anything to eclipse his title of “Guy Drafted Right Above Mike Trout.” But, you know, maybe that’s okay. The 27-year-old has developed nicely into a consistent contributor in the outfield, with power as his calling card. His 25 HRs in 2018 were a personal best; if he’s healthy for a full season, perhaps he can top 30 in 2019.
A Modest Proposal From Joe Sheehan: All of the focus in Toronto is on rookie third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who will start this season on the IL with a strained oblique. Operating in Vladito’s shadow, however, is a rookie catcher who deserves some attention. Danny Jansen is a 16th-round pick who spent four years in the low minors without ever hitting a lick. In 2017, however, he broke out with a .323/.400/.484 line across three levels, and followed that with a strong season at Triple-A Buffalo in 2018. At a time when catchers are valued for their pitch-framing skills first and everything else second, Jansen projects as a real contributor at the plate, with a good batting eye akin to that of his predecessor, Russell Martin. The catch? Jansen allowed 75% of basestealers to succeed against him in the minors, and 85% in the majors last season. Improved throwing will make Jansen one of the best catchers in a depleted American League.
MLB.TV Rating: 5.1
MLB’s overall top prospect, Vlad Guerrero, Jr., is poised to be his own mandatory viewing, a perfect 10.0. Until he’s called up, though, with third base held down by … Brandon Drury? Toronto’s farm system can make this club truly interesting in 2020, but for now, there isn’t much around to make them too exciting.
Keep an Eye Out For... If there is any justice in the baseball universe, Guerrero, Jr. will soon be fully recovered from his oblique injury and freed from any service time shenanigans, playing in the majors where he belongs. The 20-year-old doesn’t just look ready for the big leagues, he looks ready to dominate. In the rotation, there’s Sean Reid-Foley, who might ultimately be better suited for the bullpen, but he (and his wonderful mustache) debuted last year as a starter, and he has plenty of upside if he can work through his control issues. Also on the fringes of the rotation? Clay Buchholz, still trying to make it work at age 34.
What is the key question surrounding this team in 2019?
When and how good is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. going to be? And if not that, can Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman bounce back and be healthy? It would go a long way in stabilizing this club some.
Who is the most overrated player on the team?
For what they invested and thought they'd get out of Kendrys Morales, he just hasn't been consistently productive. When you watch him, he's a little bit lackadaisical.
Who is the most underrated player on the team?
I like the way Randal Grichuk plays the game. He's a good defender and has got some dangerous power. Getting a chance to play everyday, he could be a pretty productive guy for them.
What young player(s) is/are on the cusp of stardom?
If Guerrero Jr. gets there, he's the obvious one. The way Lourdes Gurriel closed out the season last year, it's going to be interesting to see what he does, because he played really well late in the year.
What young player(s) is/are the biggest bust candidate(s)?
I got down on Stroman when he came out and popped off about being extended when Luis Severino and Aaron Nola were, like he should be in their class coming off what both of those guys did. He really came on the scene, but since then, between the injuries and last year, he's been somewhat of a letdown. As strong as he is, he's not physically big, and there's always been a lot of torque in the way that he throws. And once you hurt your leg, you put more strain on your arm.
Who gets the most out of his talent?
Kevin Pillar, over the years with the Gold Glove defense out there, the way he plays the game day in and day out, is always fun to watch. He's become a little bit more of a dangerous hitter. He had a bit of a down year last year, but I think that was a team-wide funk they had last year. It was like everybody was waiting for John Gibbons to get fired.
Who gets the least out of his talent?
Morales. When they signed him, he was coming off that good year, and they've not gotten what they thought they were going to get, a veteran hitter to stabilize their lineup.
Who has the nastiest stuff on the team?
Sanchez, when he's healthy, throws bowling-ball sinkers at 97 [mph] and plus breaking balls. He's aggressive in the bottom of the zone and hard to barrel up. Ken Giles, at the end of the game, if he's right mentally and doesn't blow up, can be nasty as s--- too. But they're both very inconsistent, one because of health and one because I think he's nuts.
Who has the best baseball instincts/IQ?
I've always been a big fan of Freddy Galvis. Defensively, he's a Gold Glove-caliber guy. He can steal bases, he's got some power, he plays the game the right way, and has very good leadership.
Whose batting practice makes your jaw drop?
Justin Smoak and Guerrero Jr. In the Fall League last year, he got into a rhythm and, out there at the Cubs' place in Mesa [Arizona], there's bleachers way out in leftfield. He peppered about four in a row like five rows up into those bleachers, like holy s---! Over the berm, over the walkway, and out into the bleachers. He's his daddy's son, that's for sure.
Name two guys on this team that you would immediately trade for
A healthy Sanchez and Guerrero Jr. He's in the same conversation when you saw young hitters like Miguel Cabrera and Manny Ramirez and his dad, where you watch and go, hitting's not supposed to be this easy. You watch in amazement. My biggest hope for our game, because of how talented he is, is that he takes better care of his body than he has, because I don't want to see him become Pablo Sandoval. There are some red flags. The defense needs a lot of work. It's not that easy to say, let's go play him, because some days on defense, he can look pretty bad still. He could trend toward first base and DH at this point. I'd feel more comfortable saying that than he's going to figure out third base.
Name the guy (or guys) on this team you would never want in your clubhouse
Morales and Stroman. He pissed me off with his public comments. One of the things about being good is that you should self-evaluate yourself better. You're not in that $40 million range like [Severino and Nola] are.
Whose effort could use a jolt?
Who do you want at-bat or on the mound in a season-defining moment?
Sanchez when he's healthy, and Grichuk. When I saw them late in the year last year, he had some big at-bats late in games. Because of his high strikeout total, I was surprised how good the at-bats were. Maybe now that he's playing regularly, there's a [new] maturity level and pitch recognition.
Who don't you want in that situation?
Giles. I think you're going to have an explosion where he ends up punching himself in the face.
Which under-the-radar prospect/non-roster invitee could make a splash this season?
The much-traded Billy McKinney has made some nice adjustments. He did a nice job in September, let's see if he can make the club and be in the lineup and go out and do it in-season this year. When I saw him with the Yankees, I had more questions than answers, but when I saw him last September, he played well.
Is the current manager one you would hire to run your club?
I've got a question mark, because I think time will tell. Charlie Montoyo is a guy, though, who's paid his dues. He played a lot of years, he's coached and managed in the minor leagues at a very successful level. He seems to be liked by his players. When you talk to guys who get to the big leagues, the biggest thing they say is the speed of the game can eat you alive sometimes. It'll be interesting to see how he handles this rebuild, staying positive, keeping a good clubhouse, and bringing along those talented kids they've got coming.
What is the ceiling for this team this year? What about the next three years?
If they can approach .500, and most importantly is to develop their minor league players who do have a chance at being big league guys. It's probably going to be a three-to-five year time span at least, and they're also in a division where Mark [Shapiro] is going to have to want to spend a little bit more money than he spends now.
Emptying the Notebook: Justin Smoak's power numbers were still good, but he got into prolonged funks and didn't hit as consistently as he did a year before. But he's a legitimate guy who with the right energy can flourish and have a good year for them ... Danny Jansen is learning on the job, which is not easy to do for catchers, but he seems to bring the right energy and attitude for it, and I think he has the skillset to be an everyday guy. ... Devon Travis, it's really sad, because he was trending to be an impact offensive second baseman. Injuries just killed him. ... Teoscar Hernandez can do some things that light you up, and then at times, he's playing with his hair on fire and out of control ... If Clay Buchholz is healthy, he'll give them innings, which is going to be important and should help them. He seems to be an every-other-year injury guy ... Clayton Richard in the AL East? Have fun ... I like Ryan Tepera. Tim Mayza has good stuff. If he can control the ball, he can be a pretty nice weapon ... I'm a really big fan of Bo Bichette. He's got a chance to be an impact player. If he were on that team, he'd be my baseball IQ guy. He really has a great feel for the game. I would let him play himself off of shortstop ... Cavan Biggio is a corner player, got a little bit of power, some feel for his bat. In the Fall League, he could find the barrel pretty well. I think he's going to be a solid everyday big leaguer ... Anthony Alford is a world-class athlete who can do some things on the field that make you go 'wow!' but it's a matter of becoming a consistent baseball player. I don't think he's ready to make an impact at the big league level.