Toronto Blue Jays 2019 season preview: Vlad Jr. is coming as Toronto lays a foundation for the future

The 2015 and 2016 ALCS seasons feel like they happened the lifetime ago. The Toronto Blue Jays have lost 175 games the last two seasons while the AL East rival Red Sox and Yankees reemerged as powerhouses. Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, and Edwin Encarnacion are all gone. Only seven players from Toronto's 2016 ALCS roster remain in the organization and the rebuild is underway.

"You're either collecting talent or you're building a team. We want to build a team. We want to build a championship team," Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro told Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star in September. "The best way to do that in the AL East is to develop the core of that talent. Not to say we won't add to it at the right time, but to develop the core."

The Blue Jays lost 89 games last season and they made minimal upgrades over the winter, instead targeting lower cost free agents that don't chew up future payroll space or block prospects. There is a young talent core in place with more talent -- the organization's best talent, really -- on the way. It won't be enough for Toronto to contend in 2019. They at least appear to have a direction though.

Probable lineup

  1. LF Billy McKinney
  2. 2B Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
  3. 1B Justin Smoak
  4. DH Kendrys Morales
  5. RF Randal Grichuk
  6. CF Kevin Pillar
  7. SS Freddy Galvis
  8. 3B Brandon Drury
  9. C Danny Jansen

Bench: C Luke Maile, IF Richard Urena, OF Teoscar Hernandez, OF Dalton Pompey

Since hitting .304/.361/.498 during his 64-game partial rookie season in 2015, second baseman Devon Travis has played only 254 of 486 possible games due to injuries. He recently had knee surgery and is expected to miss much of April. The injury keeps Gurriel in the lineup everyday and gives Urena a spot on the bench.

Hernandez is going to play a fair amount, likely subbing in for McKinney against lefties and rotating in with Grichuk. Pompey is out of minor league options, meaning he can't go to Triple-A without passing through waivers, so it's likely the Blue Jays will carry him on the bench rather than risk losing him for nothing. Jansen impressed during his late-season cameo last year and, given the current state of American League catching, he might already be a top five catcher in the league.

Probable rotation

  1. RHP Marcus Stroman
  2. RHP Matt Shoemaker
  3. RHP Aaron Sanchez
  4. LHP Ryan Borucki
  5. LHP Clayton Richard

The Blue Jays already announced their regular season rotation and that is it, in order, one through five. Clay Buchholz was a late free agent signing and won't be ready to start the season, but, once he's ready to join the team, Richard will likely be bumped into a long relief role. Lefty Thomas Pannone and righties Sean Reid-Foley and Sam Gaviglio are the depth starters ticketed for Triple-A.

Stroman and Sanchez combined for a 5.21 ERA in 207 1/3 innings last season but the duo offers clear upside if healthy. Stroman is year removed from a 3.09 ERA in 201 innings and Sanchez, who is still only 26, led the American League with a 3.00 ERA in 192 innings in 2016. Shoulder trouble dogged Stroman last season and Sanchez has had various hand and finger issues (including a suitcase-related injury in 2018) the last two years. Those two getting back on track with Borucki building on his impressive rookie season would be a welcome sight for the Blue Jays.

Probable bullpen

Closer: RHP Ken Giles
Setup: RHP Bud Norris, RHP Ryan Tepera
Middle: RHP John Axford, LHP Tim Mayza, RHP David Paulino
Long: RHP Elvis Luciano

The most interesting story in Toronto's bullpen is Luciano, a just turned 19-year-old Rule 5 Draft pick who has never pitched above rookie ball. He's still considered something of a long shot to make the Opening Day roster, but he remains in big league camp and has shown some promise this spring. If he sticks, the hard-throwing Luciano would be the first teenager to pitch in the big leagues since Dodgers southpaw Julio Urias in 2016.

Joe Biagini is the odd man out right now unless the Blue Jays a) return Luciano to his original team (Royals) as per the Rule 5 Draft rules, or b) cut Pompey and go with the eight-man bullpen/three-man bench arrangement that is becoming so popular across baseball. Free agent pickup David Phelps is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and is expected to join the bullpen at some point during the first half as well.

When will Vlad Jr. arrive?

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays-Workouts
Sooner or later, the Blue Jays will call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. USATSI

Teams are increasingly shameless about manipulating the service time of their top prospects, but third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. strained his oblique earlier this month, giving the Blue Jays an excuse to send him to the minors. He's likely to begin the regular season with the rehab group in extended spring training before heading to Triple-A at some point in April. Sixteen days in the minors is all it'll take to push Guerrero's free agency back from 2024-25 offseason to the 2025-26 offseason. 

The "[Hall of Famer] Jr." name can create unrealistic expectations but Vlad Jr. has more than lived up to the hype thus far. Last year, as a 19-year-old, he hit .381/.437/.637 with 20 home runs and nearly as many walks (36) as strikeouts (37) in 91 Double-A and Triple-A games around a knee injury. That is insane production. MLB.com ranks Guerrero as the top prospect in baseball and the scouting report sounds too good to be true, but it is true:

Guerrero is an elite, generational-type hitter who stands out as much for his physical tools at the plate as his approach and capacity for making adjustments. His swing is both explosive and efficient, a combination of electric bat speed, physical strength and off-the-charts barrel control, and it makes him adept at crushing both heaters and secondary pitches to all parts of the field. He has 80-grade raw power and hit a career-high 20 home runs in 2018, but it's widely agreed that Guerrero is merely scraping the surface of his power ceiling. His pitch recognition and feel for the strike zone belie his age and experience, as he absolutely punishes mistakes, seldom expands his zone and rarely strikes out.

Miguel Cabrera, basically. Vlad Jr. has legitimate Miguel Cabrera upside. That's what we're talking about here. Sticking at third base long-term is unlikely at his size -- the Blue Jays list Guerrero at 6-foot-2 and 250 lbs. on their official spring training roster -- but Vlad Jr.'s bat will be MVP caliber no matter where he plays. He is a bona fide franchise cornerstone. Someone to build around going forward.

Although his bat was likely big league ready last year, there was never a chance the Blue Jays would call Guerrero up before pushing back his free agency, and the oblique injury means there will be no outside pressure to carry him on the Opening Day roster. The question now is whether they'll call him up before the Super Two deadline. Super Two players go through arbitration four times instead of the usual three, and if Vlad Jr. lives up to the hype, his arbitration raises could be record-setting.

There is no set Super Two deadline. It moves around a bit each year but waiting until July to call Guerrero up would put the Blue Jays in the clear. They'd control him the rest of 2019 as well as 2020-22 as a dirt cheap pre-arbitration player before he is arbitration-eligible from 2023-25. Two or three months in the minors in 2019 could equals tens of millions in savings from 2022-25. With the Blue Jays not expected to contend, would they really keep Guerrero down that long?

On one hand, it would be smart business. It would not in the best interest of baseball (the best players should be in MLB), but it would be smart business. Those millions not going to Guerrero could go to other players to strengthen the roster. On the other hand, keeping him in Triple-A too long could negatively impact his development. Vlad Jr. needs to be challenged to improve as a player and he is not being challenged in the minors. Keeping him down may save money. It also might create an inferior player.

My hunch is the Blue Jays will not wait that long to call up Guerrero. I think we'll see him sometime in late April or early May, once he's over the oblique injury and had enough minor league at-bats to get back up to speed at the plate. Keeping him down until he's safely clear of the Super Two service time cutoff would be a bad, bad look, especially since Guerrero looked MLB ready last year. So that is the official CBS Sports prediction: Vlad Jr. will arrive in late April/early May.

Also, it should be noted the Blue Jays have another elite prospect in shortstop Bo Bichette. He's not a generational talent like Guerrero but he is very good -- MLB.com ranks Bichette as the 11th best prospect in baseball and says he has the "potential to compete for batting titles in his prime" -- and could make his MLB debut in 2019. Bichette has yet to play above Double-A and will certainly spend the first few months in Triple-A this year. If he's called up this year, it'll happen in the second half.

The new manager

John Gibbons' second tour as Blue Jays manager ended following last season and the team replaced him with Charlie Montoyo, most recently the Rays bench coach. This will be Montoyo's first big league managerial job, though he has extensive coaching experience, and did manage in the minors. He is a baseball lifer who joined Tampa Bay in 1997, the year before the team played its first game as an expansion franchise.

"Charlie is a highly regarded leader by so many individuals in the game, and we were thoroughly impressed by his experiences and approach as we learned more about him during the interview process," GM Ross Atkins said in a statement after Montoyo was hired. "Charlie is passionate about the game, with a superior ability to connect and relate, and we are confident he will have an overwhelmingly positive influence on Blue Jays players and staff. On a personal level, I am looking forward to working with him as we continue to build and sustain a championship organization."

Montoyo, 53, checks all the boxes for the modern big league manager. He has playing experience (mostly in the minors, but he did play four games with the 1993 Expos), he is well-versed in analytics after all those years with the Rays, and he's bilingual, which allows him to easily communicate with more players in the clubhouse. Also, Montoyo's has already squashed any potential "Fortnite" related issues.

As the Blue Jays move forward, the emphasis will be on young players, and not only elite talents like Vlad Jr. and Bichette. Players like McKinney, Gurriel, Jansen, and Borucki are important to the franchise's long-term future as well. Throwing the kids out on the field and letting them sink or swim is an outdated player development strategy. Someone has to guide them along the way and the Blue Jays have picked Montoyo to lead the rebuild. He was their most important offseason addition.

An active trade deadline?

Crazy things happen in baseball all the time. It's part of the fun. (Who had the A's going from 75 wins in 2017 to 97 wins in 2018?) Could the Blue Jays contend in 2019? Sure, it could happen. It is very unlikely though, especially in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox, and the on-the-rise Rays. The upside here is what, a Wild Card Game appearance on the road? That seems like the best case scenario for the 2019 Blue Jays.

In all likelihood Toronto will again be looking to unload veterans at the trade deadline. Last year they shipped out Donaldson, J.A. Happ, Roberto Osuna, Curtis Granderson, Jaime Garcia, and Aaron Loup. This year's midseason trade candidates include:

  • 1B Justin Smoak (impending free agent)
  • DH Kendrys Morales (impending free agent)
  • SS Freddy Galvis (impending free agent)
  • RHP Marcus Stroman (free agent after 2020)
  • RHP Aaron Sanchez (free agent after 2020)
  • CF Kevin Pillar (free agent after 2020)

There have been conflicting reports regarding extension discussions with Stroman -- he says there have been none while the team says they've talked -- and there's been no talks about an extension with Sanchez. With a return to good health, both righties would be very valuable on the trade market, especially since they are under control next season as well. Since both are still in their 20s, keeping them and signing them long-term is also a viable option.

Unloading Smoak and Morales may prove difficult only because so many contenders are already set at first base (and DH). The best match for Smoak might be the Yankees, who are hoping either Luke Voit or Greg Bird runs away with the first base job. If that doesn't happen, Smoak is an obvious fit, and last year's Happ trade shows the two division rivals will get together for a trade. Otherwise the Blue Jays may need another team to suffer an injury to unload Smoak and/or Morales.

Clearly, the Blue Jays are planning for the future. Their focus is on 2020 and beyond, not 2019, so it stands to reason they will again be active sellers at the deadline. And, because there is a single July 31 deadline now and no August waiver trades, it could be a very busy summer for Toronto. They have some inventory to move and only so much time to move it. Expect the Blue Jays to be a popular trade partner this season.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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