If we strictly focus on wins and losses, the Tigers could not have picked a better time to face the Toronto Blue Jays. Not only are they skipping a few potential cold weather dates by opening their season in the domed Rogers Centre, the Tigers will also be avoiding the intimidating bat of one Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Vladito, as he has already been branded, has yet to play in a major league game. He is, however, the top prospect in baseball, a potentially elite hitter who is an overwhelming favorite to take home the 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Award.
But thanks to the current salary structure in MLB, Vladito will not be facing the Tigers to open the year. Nor will he face the Baltimore Orioles, Toronto’s next opponent. Instead, Guerrero Jr. will spend a few weeks in the minor leagues working on things — or, more accurately, trying to not get hurt — before finally receiving the promotion he earned at some point in 2018, when he batted a ludicrous .381/.437/.636 in the upper minors as a teenager.
This isn’t to rail on the Blue Jays, who are far from the first team to game a star prospect’s service time. It may not quite be legal under the current collective bargaining agreement, but it’s a common practice, and the smart move for the club in today’s baseball climate. They were upwards of 30 games out of first place last summer when they kept Guerrero in the minors, and are projected to finish a distant fourth in the AL East again this year.
And while they have other promising prospects in their system and other interesting players on their 25-man roster, the conversation around them in 2019 will begin and end with Vlad Jr. He will be appointment viewing, if all goes well, eventually carrying the Jays back to the postseason as the team fills out their roster around him.
We’ll just have to wait a few more weeks first.
Team at a glance
2018 record: 73-89 | 2018 pythag: 69-93 | 2019 farm system rank: 3
Manager: Charlie Montoyo (1st year)
First series vs. Tigers: March 28-31
Key additions: SS Freddy Galvis, RHP Matt Shoemaker, RHP David Phelps, LHP Clayton Richard
Key subtractions: SS Troy Tulowitzki, IF Yangervis Solarte, C Russell Martin, SS Aledmys Diaz, RHP Marco Estrada
Which newcomer will help the team most?
We Tigers fans have become accustomed to bad defense over the years. Whether we’re talking about the division winning clubs who prioritized offense, or the 2017 team that was just bad all around, the Tigers have put up some awful defensive metrics recently.
But they never came close to how bad the 2018 Blue Jays were. Toronto was worth -100 Defensive Runs Saved — yes, negative one hundred. It was the worst mark in the majors, unsurprisingly, and the seventh-worst performance since DRS became a stat in the early 2000s. Their -21 DRS from the shortstop position was the second-worst mark in baseball, and worst in the American League. So, while Freddy Galvis may not hit a ton, he should be a massive improvement up the middle for the Jays. Galvis has been a slightly below average player since becoming a full-time regular, averaging 1.7 WAR over the past four years, and is actually in the negative for DRS for his career, but he is a steady enough defender (+16.3 career UZR) to hold down the fort at short until Bo Bichette arrives.
On the pitching side, the default answer has to be righthander Matt Shoemaker. The Michigan native was a popular pick among Tigers fans as a potential free agent target this winter, but the Jays locked him up relatively early on. I’m not sure I like how he fits in Toronto, though; Shoemaker has allowed some lofty fly ball rates in his career, and that might not play well in Rogers Centre’s snug confines — or some of the other bandboxes in the division, for that matter. His ERA is projected to improve slightly, but Steamer predicts that his home run rate will nearly double.
Why didn’t they sign Bryce Harper?
In last year’s preview, I briefly pondered what it would look like if the Jays were to add Harper this offseason. The same prospects we are fawning over now were around last year, and adding Harper to a young, talented core could pay off in a big way in a couple of years. While Philadelphia and San Diego deserve a lot of credit for taking that same advice, part of me really wanted to see Harper and Vlad Jr. (see, there’s his name again) hitting back-to-back in Toronto’s bandbox of a stadium. The Jays have the money — their Opening Day payroll projects to be $50 million lower than in 2018 — and their entire outfield is a major question mark. Harper might have even been able to fake it in center at times, if necessary.
Without him, the Jays’ outfield projects… surprisingly well, actually. Both Kevin Pillar and Randal Grichuk are projected to finish above the 2 WAR line by ZiPS, and Teoscar Hernandez could make that three if he finds a way to replicate his second-half success from 2017. Billy McKinney is also still young enough to believe in, and it wasn’t long ago that Anthony Alford was the top prospect in Toronto’s system. There are enough bodies here to ensure Toronto’s outfield has a modest floor, but none of them (Alford aside, possibly) have the upside to carry this unit the way Harper could.
Down on the farm
Any discussion about the Jays’ farm system certainly begins with Vlad Jr., but it does not end there. The Blue Jays have one of the top systems in baseball, ranking as high as No. 3 on Baseball America’s list and fifth at MLB Pipeline. Shortstop Bo Bichette is ranked among the top 13 prospects in baseball by four separate publications, and should reach the majors at some point in 2019. He might not stick at short long-term, but will hit plenty enough to make up for any defensive shortcomings. Catcher Danny Jansen is the rare prep backstop who made good on those draft day dreams; he hit .247/.347/.432 in 31 games with the Jays last summer. He is another above-average hitter who might be a little shaky with the glove, although reports indicate he has taken major steps forward on that front. He should be the starter when healthy, with veteran Luke Maile or former top-100 prospect Reese McGuire filling in. Outfielder Anthony Alford has fallen off a bit thanks to injuries and pitch recognition issues, and will probably begin the season in the minors. Double-plus runners don’t grow on trees, though, and current center fielder Kevin Pillar is a free agent after 2020.
There are some other interesting players a bit further down the minor league ladder. Righthander Nate Pearson is their top pitching prospect, and has already drawn comparisons to a former hard-throwing Blue Jays prospect: Noah Syndergaard. Pearson only made one start before a fractured forearm ended his regular season, but he flashed his borderline elite fastball in 20 ⅓ innings at the Arizona Fall League. Infielder Kevin Smith shot up the ranks after a big 2018 season, but he carries more of a defense-first profile and hasn’t made it to Double-A yet. Jordan Groshans showed well in the Gulf Coast League after being drafted 12th overall last summer, and Eric Pardinho has gotten some top-100 love after a strong debut in the Appalachian League. Cavan Biggio has MLB bloodlines, but isn’t in the same stratosphere as Toronto’s top two prospects. The Jays also have two of the best-named prospects in baseball, in Orelvis Martinez and Rowdy Tellez.
Player to watch: Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
It can’t be anyone else. The last three months of the 2018 Blue Jays’ season was a mix of people looking at Guerrero’s stats, yelling about why Guerrero wasn’t in the major leagues yet, or anything else Guerrero-related you can think of. Even now, the first non-hockey headline found on Sportsnet is about Vladito. The rest of the farm system is loaded, and there are a number of intriguing pieces up and down the roster — Marcus Stroman is still a bundle of energy on the mound — but few players around the entire game are must-see TV in the same way that Vlad Jr. will be in 2019.
Projected record: 75-87
While Vlad Jr. will be up in the majors early and should make life hell for pitchers from day one — Steamer has him projected for a 138 wRC+ in 2019 — he alone cannot fix what ailed Toronto last year. In particular, the Blue Jays couldn’t keep runs off the board. Their 4.85 ERA was fourth-worst in the AL, and only three clubs walked more batters than they did. Those numbers should improve in 2019, if only because they will (probably) be healthier, but the Jays have a lot of ground to make up. Looking at run differential, they were more like a 93-loss team last year, giving them that much more ground to make up in the division.
Note: This year’s team preview series will look a little different than in seasons past. Instead of running down the entire roster, we’ll be answering questions and hitting the main storylines surrounding each of the Tigers’ opponents, published in the order the Tigers play them, as we move closer to Opening Day.