When the world is as crazy as it is right now, it’s hard to be hopeful about much, but baseball is inherently a game of eternal hope and not just because of its connection to spring, a season of rebirth. Even if you are a fan of a perennial bottom dweller, your team has another chance to be relevant at the start of every new season. So it is with that spirit of hope that I will continue to write these posts in the hope that the season will happen at some point. And if you wanted to pick a team to be hopeful about, the Blue Jays, with their three young second generation prospects, are as good a team as any to hope on for a bright future. Since the three youngsters are on the infield, let’s take a look at the situation on the dirt heading into 2020, starting with the three players generating all the hype.
The youngest of the trio of Jays whose dads were players is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Vlad’s dad, “Vlad the Impaler”, was a power hitting dynamic outfielder who also played in Canada (for the Expos) and set the family bar very high since he was elected to the Hall of Fame. Vlad Jr., unlike his pops, is a third baseman. Both men debuted on the young side with Vlad Jr. starting before his 21st birthday beating his dad by a few months. The younger Guerrero already has most of a full season under his belt after accumulating 514 plate appearances in 2019. He slashed .272/.339/.433 for a wRC+ of 105. He “only” hit 15 home runs, but his raw power is an 80 on the 80 scale, so as he grows into it, the home run numbers will continue to grow with the ceiling being a home run title; you can see why the Jays and their fans are excited. For a young player with the raw power of Vlad Jr., he doesn’t strike out like you’d expect with a K rate last year of 17.7 and a walk rate of a respectable 8.9%. So the bat is there and has a lot more growth potential in it. The glove is not there yet as Guerrero Jr. was disliked by both DRS (-9) and UZR/150 (-14.6). There aren’t many 21 year olds who come up as polished defenders and his scouting rating for both his arm and his glove are good. It is far too early to worry that he might have to move off of third, but even if he does his bat will be good enough to play even low on the defensive end of the spectrum. It isn’t only power that Vlad Jr. brings to the plate as you can see from his minor league career slash line of .331/.414/.531. He is a complete hitter who will become one of the best hitters in baseball probably sooner rather than later.
Moving clockwise around the infield we find 22 year old Bo Bichette, minding his business at the shortstop position. Bo’s dad, Dante “The Beef” Bichette, was a power-hitting member of the Blake Street Bombers in Colorado after being drafted in the 17th round. Dante had a good career – 274 career homers and a .299 batting average over 14 seasons – but was never in any danger of making The Hall. Son Bo was a second round pick and debuted last year as a 21 year old. The younger Bichette profiles as a bat over glove shortstop with tons of raw power that he is only just starting to get to in games. Bichette also projects to have an excellent hit tool that showed in the minors (career slash line of .321/.380/.515) and flashed in his half season debut in 2019 where he slashed .311/.358/.571. That’s a 142 wRC+ from a 21 year old rookie shortstop in half a season (dude!), and he is just getting started. His strike zone control isn’t quite as good as Guerrero’s at this point – he walked 6.6% of the time in his MLB debut while fanning 23.6% of the time and his BABIP was pretty high at .368, so there is some potential for regression. There might be some up and down with Bichette’s offense if he doesn’t increase the walks and cut the strikeouts, but he is a legitimate hitter already. The defensive numbers were more mixed than Guerrero’s last year with DRS seeing it as a positive season (+4) while UZR/150 seeing Bichette’s play costing 5.2 runs. Again, there just aren’t a lot of shortstops who can come up and play excellent defense at the age of 21 in the Majors, so Bichette will get a lot of chances to show how good his glove can be if he hits anywhere close to where he did in his debut.
Next on our tour of the Blue Jays 2020 infield is second baseman, Cavan Biggio, son of Hall Of Fame second baseman, Craig Biggio (no cool nickname but he was a member of the “Killer B’s”!). Dad, Craig Biggio, converted from catcher in the majors to earn four Gold Gloves as a second baseman. He led the league in doubles three times, runs twice, and steals once. He was a premier leadoff hitter at his peak and also managed to slug 291 home runs – an offensive and defensive star. Son Cavan, is substantially bigger than his dad and starts his career showing more power than Craig did initially. Of the three young Jays we have mentioned, Biggio had arguably the best overall season among them generating 2.4 WAR to Guerrero’s 0.4 and Bichette’s 1.7. One of the reasons Biggio bested his young teammates was his already extremely mature ability to take ball four. Biggio’s walk rate was 16.5% – that and his 16 home runs in 430 plate appearances offset his .234 batting average. Biggio’s 114 wRC+ and his excellent base running (14 steals in 18 attempts) along with his essentially neutral defense are what gave him the edge in WAR. The other two young emerging stars will likely surpass Biggio soon because of their big bats, but the young second baseman is valuable as a leadoff type who will scratch and claw to get on base and take you deep if you mess up. There isn’t one tool that really stands out for Biggio who is more of a “total being more than the sum of his parts” kinda guy. Those kinds of players tend to have long careers as they find different ways to be of value to their team like Biggio undoubtedly will, even without a batting average that is as shiny as Guerrero’s or Bichette’s.
Hey look – a Jay’s infielder who doesn’t have a dad who got MVP votes – weird! Travis Shaw, who is the likely starter at first base for the Jays in 2020, played himself out of a job and eventually out of town with the Brewers last year. After back to back seasons over 3.5 WAR, with 120ish wRC+ and 30+ home runs, Shaw collapsed like a rusty beach chair under your Saint Bernard in Gramma’s backyard. He didn’t quite make it to 3.5 WAR (-0.8), and narrowly missed 35 homers (7) as he finished with a (yikes!) .157 average and a 47 wRC+ in 270 excruciatingly painful plate appearances. Shaw was sent down, but was even worse in the second half of the season once he returned hitting only .128 after hitting .164 before the All Star break. Looking a little deeper, Shaw’s swing rates were about the same as in the last two years but his contact rates fell off the table, dropping around 10% overall. His strikeout rate also cratered dropping from 18.4% in 2018 to 33% in 2019! He was a complete mess with a bat in his hands, but his defense at third was good. If the Jays think they can fix him and that at 29 – almost 30 – he isn’t done, then they could end up with a good defender at third with pop when Vlad Jr. needs to be spelled or a better option at first base than what they have. If he can’t find his way back with the bat then at least he is a cheap option to play some defense until the Jays find a better option. I would be a little worried that he was 1 for 11 with seven K’s` before spring training shut down.
Completing the infield circle is Danny Jansen who got the majority of starts in the catcher’s spot last year, and will likely repeat that achievement in 2020. Jansen is almost 25 and received his first serious taste of the Major Leagues last season. The former 16th round pick hit 13 homers in 384 plate appearances while managing to hit only .207/.279/.360 for a 68 wRC+, which is subpar even for a catcher. Jansen will likely start because his defense was excellent with a DRS of 12 and great pitch framing numbers. Even if his bat only makes modest gains, his glove will keep him in the lineup – and there is hope for his bat. Jansen slashed .269/.367/.410 in the minors with better plate discipline than he showed last year. Remember that Jansen doesn’t have to hit better than all the other position players to be valuable, just better than half of the catchers!
The other part of the catching corps, Reese McGuire, has just barely had a taste of the majors but has fared well with the bat and the glove. McGuire has that sweet former first round pick shine to him so he will definitely get chances – that is if his recent arrest doesn’t completely derail his career. I won’t get into that incident because you can look it up if you like, but he is still on the roster so stay tuned. McGuire has been a glove first catcher with a strong arm but hit .299 in his short audition (105 plate appearances) last year. With no power to speak of but a modicum of plate discipline, he would make a good backup to Jansen unless his bat has another gear to it, in which case he could steal more starts.
If an injury occurs on the infield or Shaw can’t find where he put his bat (and I hope he does!), Joe Panik has played mostly second and a tiny bit of first. At 29, Panik hasn’t generated even 1.0 WAR since 2017. He walks a little, strikes out rarely and has almost no power anymore in part because in this age of launch angles, Panik hits a lot of balls into the dirt. He has a career ground ball rate of 45.2% (high) and a 29.1% hard hit rate (low) so at this point most of his value is derived from his defensive play at second base. He is not a great fit at first because his bat can’t come close to carrying the position, but any port in a storm. Rowdy Tellez hit 21 home runs for Toronto last year between first and DH, but makes tons of outs. Still, he is 25 and his wRC+ was 91 last season is his first extensive trial in the majors so he might get a shot, or might start the year in triple-A. Billy McKinney got half a season with the Jays playing the outfield and first base, and hit 12 homers but slashed .215/.274./422 and doesn’t look like the answer either, although at 25 he might have a little something left to show as a former first round pick. If you are thinking there isn’t a lot of depth past the starters in the Jays infield, then you are correct.
The Jays infield is where the team’s future lies. Guerrero, Biggio, and Bichette look like they can’t miss but if something goes wrong with the young future stars, the Jays are in trouble. At this point Toronto is still missing some parts before they can start winning, but at least the youngsters make them fun to watch. The hole at first base is at least relatively easy to address if the cast of players they are auditioning there doesn’t pan out. This probably isn’t the year where they would spend money or young talent to fill a roster hole, but once the three young stars establish themselves there will be some pressure on the Jays to spend something to complete an already exciting lineup. The farm system was ranked 6th overall by Baseball America so there is help coming, just not an infielder who is close who can help out where they need it at the moment. In the meantime go out and become attached to the three youngsters who are exciting and here to stay for a while.