Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio all made their MLB debuts last season and held their own against the best ballplayers in the world. But who will join the three of them in the infield as the Blue Jays’ primary first baseman in 2020? Let’s take a look at the Blue Jays options at first base.
It’s safe to say that 2019 was a year gone wrong for former Brewers infielder Travis Shaw. After two consecutive 30+ home run seasons from Shaw (2017 and 2018), everything seemed to fall apart for the infielder last season. Shaw’s average dropped from .241 in 2018 to .157 in 2019, while his K% rate exploded to 33% (was 18.3% in 2018). And a lot of that had to his struggles with pitches up in the zone.
When it came to pitches up and away in the zone, Shaw became relatively helpless. Pitchers wised up to him to, as there was a 1.8% increase from 2018 to 2019 in pitches Shaw saw in those two zones up and away in the zone. It’s no wonder as to why his in-zone contact rate went from 85.7% in 2018 to 75.5% in 2019.
Still, it’s not hard to figure out why the Blue Jays are taking a chance on the former Brewers, given the numbers he’s put up in previous seasons. The former Brewer has proved in recent years that he can hit for power, as well as get on base consistently. Shaw, over the past two seasons, has posted a 13.3% BB% rate, five points higher than the MLB Statcast average.
Shaw will get a chance to rebound in 2020, but how much playing time he’ll actually get will depend on whether he can prove last season was a fluke.
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Justin Smoak was the Blue Jays’ primary first baseman last season, leaving Rowdy Tellez to split his time in 2019 between first base and the DH slot. But Tellez’s 2019 season didn’t go very well, as he batted just .227 while posting an on-base percentage below .300 (.293). Tellez’s rough season in 2019 also included a demotion to AAA in July, but was recalled less than a month later by the Jays after putting up a .366/.450/.688 slash line with Buffalo (AAA).
Tellez was able to rebound a bit after being recalled, as he batted .257 while smacking six home runs, 11 extra base hits and drove in 11 runs during the month of September. The California native’s exit velocity numbers were also quite impressive in September as well. During the final month of the season, Tellez’s average exit velocity off of batted balls was 95.49 MPH, the second-highest average in baseball during the month of September, trailing only the Indians’ Franmil Reyes.
No one will question whether Tellez can hit for power, but can the 24-year old put up a season where he can make contact consistently? He couldn’t do that in 2019, but Tellez will need to in order to prove he should be a part of the Blue Jays future. It’s also fair to question as to whether the left-handed hitting Tellez can handle right-handers (yes, you read that correctly). Tellez batted .270 against left-handed pitchers last season, while only batting .208 across 255 at-bats against righties.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
While Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s primary position (for right now) is third base, there’s good reason to believe he’ll be the Blue Jays’ starting first baseman in the near future. Guerrero was charged with 17 errors in just 96 games in the field in 2019, tied with Miguel Sano for the second-most errors at third base in the American League (Rafael Devers was first in the AL in errors at third). Scouts and talent evaluators have thought for quite some time have thought that Guerrero Jr. would have to eventually move off the position, and those calls are only going to get stronger if he continues to struggle at third.
With that said, it’s fair to wonder as to whether the Jays to should look to move Guerrero Jr. to first base sooner rather than later. The 20-year old no doubt has the hitting ability to be a star in the league, but with his size and lack of range at the position, it became even clearer that the move needs to be soon. However, will that happen in 2020?
What May Happen with the Jays at 1B?
It’s hard to say right now how things will shake out, as how the Blue Jays align their infield could depend on whether Travis Shaw can rebound after a tough 2019 campaign. Considering that Shaw has playing experience at both first and third, the Jays could transition Guerrero Jr. to first base or the DH slot and give Shaw the hot corner for 2020. But if Shaw struggles again in 2020, that could throw a wrench into that potential idea.
However, given that the Jays have gone all in on the youth movement, it’s very likely that they’ll give Guerrero Jr. a chance to stay at third, at least for now, taking him out of the first base conversation. That leaves Shaw and Tellez as the two possibilities at first base.
Because of where the Jays currently are as an organization, it makes the most sense for Tellez to get the bulk of the playing time at first to see what he has. Tellez’s power is certainly tantalizing, but he needs to be more than just a .220 hitter with power in order to be a part of the Jays’ nucleus, especially since Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will need to move off of third eventually. As for Shaw, the former Brewer’s versatility, along with his track record (sans last season) means he’ll get a good amount of time at first, along with time as third and DH. The Jays could also look at a platoon situation in 2020, especially if Tellez struggles against righties once again.
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