The Toronto Blue Jays were all the rage two years ago. The team won 182 games between 2015 and 2016 and appeared in back-to-back ALCS’. The heart of their batting order was filled with a murderers row for the ages, with Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista putting the fear of god into pitchers. Their pitching staff was bolstered by two young righties in Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez that looked destined to be baseball’s next dynamic duo.
But then Encarnacion left for the Indians after 2016. Jose Bautista cratered in 2017 and is no longer with the team. Sanchez has dealt with injury issues. And just like that, the former envy of the AL went from the ALCS to a 76-86 record last season. The departures of key players and the persistent injury issues with their remaining ones have put a cloud over the team, which is causing a lot of fantasy baseball owners to overlook what is still a very interesting team.
Although he was mired in trade rumors for much of the offseason, Josh Donaldson and his record-setting $23 million arbitration contract are back for another season in Toronto. Donaldson posted the best wRC+ in baseball over the final two months of the season and looks set to battle for another MVP this year.
To complement their 32-year slugger, Toronto made a series of smart, under the radar acquisitions over the offseason. With several significant holes in their outfield, Toronto traded for power hitting outfielder Randal Grichuk from St. Louis. They also signed veteran Curtis Granderson to supply some patience and more lefty power to their lineup. The Blue Jays also bolstered their infield depth by trading for the underrated contact-machine Yangervis Solarte from San Diego and shortstop Aledmys Diaz from St. Louis. While none of these moves seem overly impressive on their own, the aggregate effect will be significant. FanGraphs currently has Toronto projected for an 84-78 record this season with the fifth most runs scored in baseball.
Toronto should be on the radar of fantasy owners since all of their players are undervalued right now. Below I will talk about two guys in particular, Randal Grichuk and Devon Travis, who are going undrafted in most leagues and have the potential to provide significant surplus value.
Randal Grichuk (OF) – 8% Yahoo / 13 % ESPN
Randal Grichuk is kind of like Taco Bell. Grichuk is known for his strikeouts and lack of consistent playing time in St. Louis; Taco Bell for serving Grade D meat. But in both cases, when you take a deeper look, things don’t appear so bad. Taco Bell is now the the healthiest fast food chain and Grichuk has a new lease on life in the Toronto Blue Jays outfield.
Grichuk, 26, spent the last four seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, looking great at times and horrible at others. The logjam of outfielders in St. Louis cost him playing time, and things looked even worse after the Cards acquired Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins. Fortunately, a mid-January trade to the Blue Jays opens the door for Grichuk to get 600+ plate appearances for the first time in his career.
Grichuk’s MLB batting line to date is 249 / 297 / 488. What does an above average slugging percentage combined with a sub-300 on-base percentage typically mean? You guessed it – a power hitter who strikes out a ton and barely takes a walk. Grichuk’s career 29.9% strikeout rate is over 5.5x higher than his 5.8% walk rate. We don’t need to look far to find out the reasons, as Grichuk swings at a lot of pitches outside the zone and has trouble making contact in the zone as well. His 35.5% career outside swing rate compares to the MLB average of 29.9% last season, while his zone contact rate of 81.8% trails the MLB average of 85.5%. All of that combines for an unsightly 14.7% career swinging strike rate and a lot of resulting Ks.
That type of K/BB ratio makes it hard for a hitter to be valuable. They need to be VERY good in another quality – whether it be power or speed or both – to make up glass ceiling of a sub 0.20 BB/K ratio. Fortunately Grichuk has very good, if not elite power, a fact obscured by his lack of playing time to date and corresponding career high of only 24 home runs.
To put some numbers to it: Grichuk is 15th in the majors over the last three years (min. 1,000 PA) in isolated slugging percentage at 247, ahead of names like Rizzo, Bryant, Sano and Goldschmidt. He’s 12th in hard hit rate over the same span. And he also ranked seventh last season in barreled balls per plate appearance at 9.5%. Clearly, when Grichuk does make contact with the baseball, he hits it hard and far. As it stands, he’s a top 10-15 hitter of the baseball when he makes contact, and a fact that should grab the attention of fantasy owners.
Even assuming no improvement in Grichuk’s overall approach, and relying strictly on his career averages, he’s an 80 R / 30 HR / 80 RBI / 5 SB fantasy player in a full season (630 PA). The 249 career average is a bit of a drag, but if he can figure things out a bit on the swing and miss front that will improve along with the rest of his counting stats. After all, Grichuk is only 26 years old, and has never had the opportunity to to be a definitive starter. The confidence that comes with that can only help with his performance. Additionally, Grichuk’s career splits against lefties and righties are about even, so he’s not at risk of losing at bats on the wrong side of a platoon.
Cutting back the strikeout rate is the rising tide that lifts all boats in fantasy, both on the counting stat and ratio front. If Grichuk can manage that, a 90 / 35 / 90 / 7 / .270 fantasy line should be attainable, which would make him an eighth to 10th round draft talent. Currently he’s owned in less than 15% of leagues and has an ADP north of 300. There is little downside in drafting him late and tons of upside if he can progress.
Devon Travis (2B) – 2% Yahoo / 6% ESPN
Devon Travis, the diminutive second baseman for the Toronto Blue Jays, has showed serious flashes of talent over his abbreviated three-year MLB career. But unfortunately most baseball fans and fantasy owners know Travis not for his career 292 average and 462 slugging percentage, but for being the arguably the most injured player in baseball since his 2015 debut.
Despite taking his first MLB swings less than three years ago, Travis has had two separate 60-day DL stints as well as another two 15-day DL stints. Shoulder issues, and a subsequent surgery, plagued him in 2015-16, followed by recurring knee issues that cropped up in late 2016 and scuttled most of his 2017 season. As a result, Travis’ fantasy stock heading into the 2018 season is close to an all-time low, with a mere 6% ownership in ESPN leagues and an ADP well into the 300s.
The story of Devon Travis really begins over five years ago. Travis was drafted out of the University of Florida by the Tigers in June 2012 and immediately turned heads in Detroit’s minor league system. He accrued wRC+’s of 135, 160, 174 and 126 at stops from low-A to AA from 2012 to 2014, displaying an impressive combination of plate discipline, batted ball skills and speed. His strikeout rate in the minors never topped 13.6% and his B/KK rate hovered in the 0.75 range, which is elite. Travis was so good that Baseball America tabbed him as the top prospect in the Tigers’ organization following the 2014 season.
Then, in November 2014, Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski shipped Travis to Toronto in an inexplicable trade for the light-hitting center fielder Anthony Gose. Travis seized the Blue Jays’ starting second base job out of the following spring training, and so started the story of his injury-riddled career. Gose is now a pitcher in the Texas Rangers’ minor league system.
Travis carried his skills from the minors to the MLB, with a career strikeout rate under 20%, which is well above average in this day and age. While his walk rate leaves a lot to be desired, Travis makes up for it with his batted ball skills, to the tune of a 341 career BABIP. The low strikeout rate and high BABIP have enabled him to produce a career 292 average, which plays well in traditional scoring fantasy leagues. Now, normally a BABIP in the 340s should arouse caution in the astute fantasy owner, however Travis’ hit it to all fields approach and solid line drive rate provide comfort that the success is repeatable. And although not a flyball hitter by nature, Travis’ barreled balls per plate appearance ranked in the top 70th percentile of MLB hitters last year at 5.1%, showing that he does make solid contact.
The other impressive facet to Travis’ game in the majors thus far is his power. His 24 home runs in 867 career plate appearances prorates to 18 over a full season. Given that his career HR/FB rate is a very reasonable 11.2% there shouldn’t be much concern in that figure regressing. For a near-300 hitter to hit around 20 home runs in a season is a boon from the middle infield in fantasy circles.
Travis underwent offseason surgery for his knee issue and is by all accounts fully healthy this spring, logging significant time in the field and a 500 slugging percentage in 26 at-bats. There is also talk around the Blue Jays that Travis is slotted as the lead-off hitter to open the season. This would do wonders for Travis’ fantasy value, as his PAs would increase and he’d have the opportunity to hit in front of perennial MVP candidate Josh Donaldson. If Travis can spend a good portion of the season at the top of Toronto’s batting order, which of course implies good health, a 90 R / 20 HR / 75 RBI / 8 SB / 300 AVG fantasy line is in the cards for the once top prospect.