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The Toronto Blue Jays continue to bolster their 2021 squad by adding two more players in recent days. The Jays signed free agent infielder Marcus Semien to a one-year deal while picking up lefty Steven Matz from the Mets for three minor league pitchers.
While most observers had noted that, after acquiring George Springer on a six-year deal, the Blue Jays should turn their attention to acquiring more starting pitching but the next move that came was to add more offense, and to potentially help the infield defense (although that might be a tough to figure out quantitatively).
The Blue Jays signed infielder Marcus Semien, getting him on a one-year deal for $18 million to play, reportedly, second base. Semien, who had been with Oakland since 2015, had a monster season in 2019, posting a 7.6 fWAR with a .285/.369/.522 slash line and 33 home runs, getting tons of value from both his offense and defense. That followed a 3.9-WAR 2018 season after maxing out at 2.1 WAR in his four seasons previous.
In 2020, however, he had a very slow start for the first 14 games, posting a .190/.215/.238 slash line with 12 hits in 63 at bats but just two extra-base hits. For his remaining 39 games, however, Semien brought his numbers up, hitting .236/.339/.432 with eight doubles and seven home runs, giving him a respectable .223/.305/.374 slash line, a wRC+ of 92 overall and 1.2 WAR over 53 games.
With Semien, there are big questions. He’s consistently produced offensively around league average, particularly with the Athletics, and only in 2019 did he see his production jump, giving him a wRC+ of 138 (the only time he’s been above 100). Additionally, his strikeout rate, which was above 20% for his entire career, dropped to 18.6% in 2018 and then to 13.7% in 2019, before climbing back to 21.2% in 2020. His ISO (Isolated Slugging) also went from around .150 (with a .197 figure in 2016) to .237 in 2019 and back to .152 in 2020.
Looking at his statcast batting numbers, his exit velocities have generally been around around 87 mph for most of his career with his highest average exit velo coming in 2019 at 88.9 mph. In 2020, his average exit velo was 86.2 mph with a higher average launch angle, likely resulting in more easily caught fly balls. If we look at how he placed in exit velocity, hard-hit %, barrel %, he was towards the bottom of the league in 2020, in the 12th percentile, ninth percentile and 27th percentile, respectively.
This will make us wonder whether the 2019 numbers were the outliers or whether it was 2020 that was unusual and whether he can rebound to 2019 levels.
MLB Trade Rumors notes that his defense is rated below average by Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric (6th percentile) while DRS and UZR on Fangraphs have been more kind to him. I have seen some mention that he benefitted greatly by playing shortstop alongside Matt Chapman in Oakland.
That said, all reports have Semien playing second base for the Blue Jays. Whether the Jays have Vladimir Guerrero Jr. or Rowdy Tellez at first base, they’re going to need a veteran with range to play second base and Semien fits the bill. Apparently, this will keep Bo Bichette at shortstop while Cavan Biggio moves across the diamond to third (assuming that Vlad doesn’t reclaim the position).
Regardless, if he provides solid defense and league-average offense, the Jays are only tied into a one-year deal and he serves as a solid place holder for some of the younger shortstop/infield prospects the Jays have coming including Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans.
I’ve seen a lot of bewilderment about the trade with some prognosticators wondering why the Jays would want Matz. Matz was a solid pitcher in 2018 and 2019 for the Mets, putting up a combined 4.09 ERA and 1.295 WHIP over 314 1/3 innings, striking out 305 and walking 110. A sinkerballer, Matz’s sinker didn’t really sink in 2020 (adding over 100 RPM and losing three inches of vertical break) despite gaining over one mph in velocity.
Whether it was because of his bread and butter pitch not doing what it was supposed to do as well or for other reasons, Matz was terrible in 2020, posting a 9.68 ERA and 1.70 WHIP over 30 2/3 innings. He was taken out of the rotation after five starts and ended up also serving time on the IL due to a shoulder injury. The big takeaway is that he also gave up a TON of home runs, allowing 14 in 30 2/3 innings for a 4.1 HR/9 rate which is pretty crazy.
Another thing that keeps me from being to sold on Matz is the fact that even in his best two seasons, he only averaged just over five innings per start. Was he being hidden after two times through the order? Did he fatigue quickly? With Nate Pearson likely to be held back in terms of his innings in 2021, do the Jays need another starter who has a history of pitching limited numbers of innings, even at his best, further taxing the bullpen?
The big question is what the Blue Jays see in Matz and they’ll certainly have Pete Walker work with him once he comes to the Jays.
Going the other way are Sean Reid-Foley, Yennsy Diaz and Josh Winckowski. Reid-Foley, 25, has been up and down in the majors for the past three years and has struggled to throw his pitches, which can be excellent, for strikes. He pitched well in limited exposure in 2020, throwing just 6 2/3 innings out of the bullpen but walked six and struck out six despite giving up just one earned run (although he allowed three runs overall).
Yennsy Diaz, had an long-lasting lat strain injury that kept him out of action in 2020 but he made his very brief major league debut in 2019, throwing 2/3 of an inning and walking four batters, giving up two runs. That said, he was very successful in his 2019 season in Double-A New Hampshire, posting a 3.74 ERA and 1.23 WHIP, striking out 116 and walking 53. I had seen him in spring training that year, seeing both the potential (mid-to-high 90s velocity) and the struggle (lack of control, consistency in offspeed pitches).
Josh Winckowski, 22, may be the sleeper in this transaction. Winckowski has been under the radar for a while but was outstanding in 2018 in Vancouver as a 20 year old and had a very strong season in 2019 split between Lansing and Dunedin despite fighting nagging injuries. He had a 2.69 ERA and 1.20 WHIP combined and he did see his strikeout rate drop at the higher level, likely due to the injury.
Reports were that Winckowski was hitting 97 mph on the radar gun in the Blue Jays’ fall instructional camp in 2020 despite showing some rust (as reported by Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs).
The Blue Jays have further bolstered their lineup, added infield depth and have added a starter for 2021. Are there any moves left to make? What would you like to see the Jays do as the target date for spring training approaches?
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