September 30 – No Judge-ment On Mayza

First off, the obvious – Congratulations, Blue Jays! If you missed it, they clinched their spot in the post-season yesterday, so even though they’re not AL East Division champs this year, they are going to the playoffs! It marks the fourth time since 2015…but also only the fourth time since they last won the World Series in 1993. Now their priority is to keep on winning through the final two series of the year , against the Red Sox this weekend and Orioles next week. It’s obviously important to them to keep their position as the top Wild Card team to have home advantage for the brief three-game series… especially as it seems most likely the opponent will be the Tampa Bay Rays. As any fan knows, Toronto has a notoriously hard time playing in their Tropicana Field.

While we’re at it, congrats to the L.A. Dodgers who are currently sitting on top of the world with 108 wins. As such they’re guaranteed at least a tie for the best record in baseball this year and have set a new franchise record. When you’re dealing with a team as rich in history and stars as the L.A., nee Brooklyn, Dodgers, that’s saying something.

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The Jays wrapped up the playoff berth in a less-than-dramatic fashion yesterday, sitting at home watching Baltimore lose. It was an off-day for Toronto but the loss by Baltimore prevents the orange birds from catching up to the blue ones. Jose Bautista is cheering somewhere (yes, the Orioles have Toronto public enemy #1, fast-fisted Rougned Odor on their roster.)

The preceding day wasn’t very fine for the Jays mind you, losing 8-3 in the final game of the regular season series against the division champion Yankees. To make matters worse (?), the Yanks took the lead for good on a homer by Aaron Judge. Not just any homer, mind you, but home run #61 on the season. In so doing, he ties the record by another Yank, Roger Maris, for most home runs in a season in the AL. In many people’s minds, that’s the single season record period… the only seasons that topped it (in the NL) were by known PED-using stars Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa.

I have to say congrats to Judge. There’s no denying he’s having a brilliant season and is finally living up to his considerable reputation and potential. Picking between him and Shohei Ohtani (who last night took a no-hitter into the seventh, and is pitching with an ERA of about 2.30 and hitting with 90+ RBI) for the MVP is going to be a challenge.

That said, many Toronto fans were none too happy at it.

I wasn’t. Although initially my reaction was “let’s let him celebrate in some other city”, I realized I didn’t really care much that he hit a historic home run in the Rogers Centre. Right into the Jays bullpen in fact. What did irk me was after the Jays had scratched back to tie the game after quickly falling behind 3-0, the one pitch let the Pinstripers jump back out front.

Many have criticized both pitcher Tim Mayza and manager John Schneider for it. The feeling is that Mayza was a poor choice to face Judge in a tie game and that Timmy, since he was on the mound anyway, shouldn’t have given Aaron anything to hit. If not intentionally walking him, at least throw him things way off the plate or in the dirt. But I think that’s perhaps ill-considered complaining. In fact, it might be strategically brilliant, even if unintentional. Let me explain:

Yes, southpaw Tim Mayza was a bit of an odd choice to face Judge, a right handed hitter. As one expects, Mayza has handled lefty bats better than right-handers this season, to the effect of a .169 average and .523 OPS against lefties but a .300 average and .841 OPS against righties. Ergo, he’s a star against left-handed hitters but weak against righties. But all things considered, he along with Alex Cimber have been the two most reliable relievers outside of All Star closer Jordan Romano, for the team this year. New York isn’t all lefties, so keeping Mayza out there made some sense.

Now, there was a case to be made for intentionally walking Judge, particularly in a tie game with a man on base. It perhaps would have been my call. But, there would be a downside to that too.

Toronto had already walked Judge seven times in the series, and New York fans (and many of their players) had gone ballistic about them walking him in the first game in a tie situation late in the game. Walking him on what would probably be his final appearance of the series would enflame them more.

Now, I’m not one to be too worried about annoying Bronx Bombers fans or some of their hot-headed players – Gerritt Cole, looking at you – much. But, John Schneider probably realized something . The road to the World Series almost certainly runs through New York for the Jays.

As the standings right now would indicate, barring something totally unforeseen like Seattle sweeping all their remaining games, Toronto plays Tampa in the Wild Card series. Should they win that , they play Houston – a lofty task. But if they prevail, they play the winner of the Yankees division series winner. That could be the Yankees or the Mariners or Guardians, but likely… the Yankees. Perhaps the thought was “why intentionally antagonize them more when we will need to beat them in a seven-game series to make the World Series?” Of course the Yankees will be geared up and revving for that series should it happen, but if somehow Judge ended up the season with just 60 and they viewed Toronto as the reason, it might just ratchet up their enthusiasm – and the crowd’s noise – enough to make it more difficult for a Toronto win. Maybe one at bat wasn’t worth that.

Or maybe, Tim Mayza just put it best himself: “I just wanted to attack him with sinkers (the ball Judge hit was an 85 MPH sinker). Try to get the ball on the ground…I probably made one mistake and he took advantage. Kudos to him.”

In the end, that one mistake won’t matter a great deal. The Yankees will totally forget it if Judge hits a 62nd one this weekend and more importantly, it will barely be a blip on our radar if Tim Mayza and his teammates are playing more meaningful games a month from now.

The Roadmap To October

Whew! They can exhale again. The Blue Jays that is. After going through a disillusioning slump in August they’ve started to come up to speed just at the right time (American League Player of the Week Bo Bichette especially) , have a 1.5 game lead over Tampa for second place in the division and the top Wild Card spot as of the start of today’s game and more importantly, they’ve gotten through the most difficult part of the whole season’s schedule, having to play two double headers in an eight day stretch. A stretch which if it had gone badly could have careened the team off a metaphorical cliff and out of the running for the post-season.

It’s not clear-sailing from here on in, but the schedule does look a lot more manageable and with three days off before the end of the season and no double headers slated (fingers crossed therefore for no East Coast rainstorms during their travels to alter that) they should be able to use their pitching staff to its best advantage, probably avoiding any more “bullpen” days which at best burn out most of the ‘pen for a couple of days and at worst are handing the opponents a win, and perhaps using the Number 5 starter only once or twice down the stretch. And even that looks a wee bit brighter than it did a few days back thanks to Trade Deadline guy Mitch White‘s most recent outing. After six horrendous starts with Toronto, he had a good talk and some instructions from coach Pete Walker and fellow starter Kevin Gausman and did a yeoman’s job Tuesday in the first game of a double header against Tampa. Called up from AAA to be the extra, 29th Man for the DH, White had expected to be called on in the evening game but ended up being needed in the noontime one instead. He went six innings, taking a lot of pressure off the ‘pen and after a shaky first inning (which was the 2nd inning, Julian Merryweather was the starter oddly enough) in which he gave up three runs, not helped by bad defense behind him, he settled in and shut down the Rays for the next five. Significantly, he didn’t walk anyone in the six frames, a remarkable improvement over his past three outings in which he put eight on over a cumulative 12 innings. All in all, it gives us reason to see how he was actually in the lineup for the winningest team in baseball before being traded here and at least not assume we’d lose any game he showed up in. Although he’s currently back assigned to AAA Buffalo, he’s eligible to be called up to “The Show” again long before Toronto should need a fifth starter….once we get past tomorrow.

Speaking of, here’s how the remainder of the season could shake down when it comes to starting pitchers for the Jays

Today , vs Tampa – Gausman

Sep. 16 vs Bal – ?

Sep. 17 vs Bal – Berrios

Sep. 18 vs Bal – Manoah

Sep 19 off

Tu Sep 20 at Phi – Stripling on extra day rest

Sep 21 at Phi – Gausman on extra day rest

Sep 22 at Tampa – Berrios

Sep 23 at Tampa – Manoah

Sa Se 24 at Tampa – White

Sep 25 at Tampa – Stripling

Sep 26 off

Tu Sep 27 vs NYY – Gausman on extra day rest

Sep 28 vs NYY – Berrios on extra day rest

Sep 29 off

Fr Sep 30 vs Bos – Manoah on extra day(s) rest

Oct 1 vs Bos – Stripling on extra day rest

Oct 2 vs Bos – Gausman

Oct 3 at Bal – Berrios or White

Oct 4 at Bal – Berrios on extra day or White

We Oct 5 at Bal – Manoah if necessary or ? (Kikuchi,?)

which could lead to

Fr Oct 7 – Wildcard Game 1 – Manoah if not used Oc 5, or Stripling on extra day

Sa Oct 8 – wildcard Game 2 – Stripling on extra day(s) or Gausman on extra day

Su Oct 9 if nec. Wildcard G3 – Berrios or Gausman on extra day(s)

Not bad. The only real red flag day is tomorrow which may necessitate either another “bullpen” day or else someone like Casey Lawrence being called up from Buffalo. After that they should be able to get by primarily with just the “core four” of Manoah, Gausman, Berrios and Stripling, with several of them getting to make at least one start on extra days rest, a bonus at this point in the long season. The final weekend illustrates the rather obvious need to focus on winning and making every game count. Right now, the sched looks like the final game would be Alek Manoah’s normal game day. At 14-7, 2.43, WAR of 4.8 and 178 innings so far, Manoah’s not only been the team’s top starter but would have been the top starter on the majority of AL teams this season. He’s the one guy the Blue Jays would want out there for an all or nothing game. But better not to have that day be all-or-nothing. If they have, let’s say already guaranteed the top Wild Card spot (or division but that might be asking for a little bit much!) , they could rest him, go with someone like Yusei Kikuchi and not be overly worried about the outcome. That would leave Manoah fresh and ready to open up the Post Season. If however he has to be used Oct.5, it likely means a combination of Stripling, Gausman and Berrios called on for the Best of Three Wild Card series. Which still isn’t a bad deal of the cards.

Ross Atkins still seems negligent in not trading for more pitching at the deadline. But, if the offence can keep turning in some runs for the rest of the month, he might just be able to deftly steer the team to some October success after all.

Lessons From 30 Years Ago And ‘We Told You So’

They honored the 1992 Blue Jays a few nights back at the Rogers Centre, commemorating the 30th anniversary of their World Series win. Which, I doubt I need to remind you was the team’s first ever championship, and Canada’s as well.

It was a fine moment, and got me to thinking, what does it take to win a World Series? Is there any formula? Well, I doubt it, but when I look back to the ’92 and ’93 Jays, and most World Series winners since, it seems like there are some constants. Solid starting pitching from at very least three good pitchers, preferably fairly mature ones. A good mix of players at different stages from their careers. A dash of youth, with a rookie or sophomore or two, a few hard-working veterans, preferably ones “hungry” for a championship ring and a number of “middle-aged” (in sports terms) veterans coming into their prime.

The ’92 Jays had that, and a few other bonuses like two ace closers in Tom Henke and Duane Ward. If one was tired or the game went too long, the other could fill in admirably. Together that season, they played in 136 games, threw 157 innings with a skimpy 2.06 ERA and collected 46 saves.

They had the excellent, balanced rotation. David Cone, brought in at the trade deadline, in his sixth season, having thrown 200 innings in five of those six and led the league in strikeouts twice. Young Juan Guzman (a little like Alek Manoah in results if not physique) who followed up a ’91 rookie year where he threw 138 innings with a 16-5, 2.64, 180 inning year. Savvy veteran Jimmy Key, 31 at the time. And of course, we can’t forget Jack Morris. Coming off a year where he had been the World Series MVP for Minnesota, he was a flashy acquisition for Toronto in the off-season and while he sometimes seemed indifferent to how many runs the opposition scored as long as the team was winning, and almost always seemed gruff, he got the job done. He became the franchise’s first 20-game winner that year, not surprising for a guy who’d already crafted Hall of Fame type numbers by that point, winning 237 and throwing over 2200 strikeouts – not to mention anchoring World Series winners for two different teams (Detroit in ’84 being the other) – before the season began.

Then there was the hot-hitting, sure-handed 1-though-9 lineup. First baseman John Olerud and second baseman Roberto Alomar were both still 24, though Olerud was only in his third season, Alomar his fifth. Both stepped it up a notch to have what were, at that point, career years though both would top them the following one. Kelly Gruber was 30 and a workaday third baseman; Joe Carter was the smiling, crowd-pleasing leftfielder behind him, at 32 being at the top of his career. But perhaps most important of all that year was the DH- Dave Winfield. Another big free agent acquisition that year for Toronto, Winfield was 40 and in his 18th season as an everyday player. He was a 12-time All-star, a speedy power hitter with Hall of Fame credentials…but no World Series championship. He’d been to the Fall Classic once, in 1981, and was the goat in the Yankees loss to L.A. And not the “greatest of all time” style goat! He went 1 for 22 in that series and was blamed by some Bronx fans for them losing. He clearly wanted redemption, even if in a different country. And he motivated the team, and the fans (remember his telling the fans “more noise”?). Obviously it worked, Toronto beating Atlanta in six games.

The ’93 edition featured a lot of the same cast, but while Morris and Winfield moved on, they brought in veteran star starter Dave Stewart, great-fielding Toronto fave Tony Fernandez at shortstop and Paul Molitor to DH. Molitor at the time was 36, a five-time all star with numbers pointing towards Cooperstown. But with Milwaukee, he’d not been to the playoffs since ’82, and like Winfield before him, he was wanting a Championship. And he delivered, hitting .332 with a league-high 211 hits in the regular season then came through to almost single-handedly keep the Phils at bay, winning the Wolrd Series MVP, hitting .458 with two homers and 7 RBI in the six games.

Comparing that to this year’s edition of Jays seems like it might show up a few of the shortcomings. The 2022 edition Jays have plenty of youth – Vladimir Guerrero Jr is 23, as is Alejandro Kirk; Bo Bichette 24. Santiago Espinal is 27, but has played only 118 games before this season. Players like Matt Chapman (29), Teoscar Hernandez (31 in October) and George Springer, 33 in a few days are veterans who should be coming to their prime, but seeing Hernandez this year and how he’s tailed off from the past two makes one think perhaps he’s passed it. Springer was a great acquisition who just might take the team and run it to a championship in October … if they get to the post-season, and if he’s healthy enough to be active. His post-season experience is likely one reason the team paid $150M to sign him. He’d been to two World Series, won one (2017) and was the series MVP that time. In that one, he hammered five HR, part of the 19 he’s had in 63 career playoff games. Bullpen wise, Jordan Romano might rival Ward or Henke…but unfortunately, while Alex Cimber and Anthony Bass have been fairly good, neither one is like one of the ’92 duo.

It might be a point to ponder for the club this off-season. The Jays have an almost unique situation in which only two players of any significance to the team are free agents – Ross Stripling and reliever David Phelps. They have an opportunity to return almost the identical lineup to the fans in 2023. But maybe they shouldn’t. It seems like another veteran position player or two, maybe an aging one who really wants to win (as well as the obvious upgrade to the starting rotation, which unfortunately is probably a goal of about 27 other teams) could be a big plus.

Then again, if this year’s crew manages to suddenly get hot in September and motor through the playoffs, this might become a happily moot point!

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Toronto fans long complained that umpire Angel Hernandez was bad at his job, and biased against them. Well, whether or not he hated Toronto (and watching the games, it was hard not to think that not the case) the league itself has surprisingly spoken up to agree with the first part of the statement.

In a very rare move, MLB publicly lambasted the Cuban-born umpire this week, saying he wasn’t chosen to umpire in the World Series, because, well, basically he was bad at his job. They said the fact that he had three calls overturned by video review in one playoff game between Boston and New York in ’18 (something that had never happened before) left them “not confidant in his ability to perform effectively.” They also noted he’d been quick to regularly “enflame on field tensions” and pointed out a home run he missed, despite looking at replays, that cost Oakland a game against Cleveland back in 2013.

They could go on and on with more examples; there is no shortage of them. The real question then is why is he still an active umpire? There’s little doubt that the league chose to publicly rebuke him because he had sued them for discrimination – saying his Hispanic heritage made the league try to keep him down – which a judge found zero evidence of. But again, why say to the world that an umpire is incompetent…but then keep him on? Well, for that we give the last word to USA Today, who noted “the league evaluates umpires on such a lenient scale that makes it nearly impossible to hold an umpire accountable for poor performance.”

Atkins Should Have Asked The Magic 8 Ball About Pitching

Last night’s 7-3 loss to Baltimore is all too typical of the Blue Jays of late. Taking on a possible Wild Card rival (and let that sink in – the new look Orioles are a mere 1.5 games behind Toronto right now) , they fell behind early, never really looked highly motivated or able to get back in it, committed a couple of errors and slipped further behind in the race. Whatever momentum and enthusiasm new manager John Schneider brought with him last month seems to have evaporated. And also typical last night, another bad start from Yusei Kikuchi.

Kikuchi’s become a bad joke this year, somehow looking far worse than his 4-7, 5.25 record would suggest. He falls behind early and often, walks far too many, and when he does bear down and throw a hard strike…it’s too oft left right in the middle of the plate for some power hitter to knock into the fifth deck. Even the team’s own website, usually eternally optimistic (as you’d expect for a promotional device for the team) today lament that his ongoing troubles may “force the hand” of the team and manager John Schneider says clearly “everything is on the table…it’s more urgency than patience right now. The season’s getting short.”

That it is, but John’s options are rather limited, something many a fan is pointing out…and pointing a finger at GM Ross Atkins for. Toronto was expected to trade for Reds’ ace Luis Castillo. Seattle got him instead. Toronto was expected to trade for Oakland star Frankie Montas. He went to the Yankees after some reports prematurely already reported a trade to the Jays. Instead, Atkins picked up low-profile young pitcher Mitch White from the Dodgers.

Now, White has an upside, not the least is his youth and fact that this is only his second full season in the majors. He could be a very reliable member of the rote down the road. But he hardly seems like the answer for a team with real playoff aspirations but a struggling (to be generous) set of starting pitchers. Thankfully Ross Stripling is expected off the IL by the weekend, and he’s done yeoman work switching from the bullpen to rotation. But, it’s still hard to be excited for the prospect’s of the team with the current pitching lineup. Which leads many to blame Atkins. But is that fair? Let’s look at how the year’s progressed and how much of it was entirely predictable.

The Jays began the year touting a rotation of Jose Berrios, Kevin Gausman, Hyun Jin Ryu, Alek Manoah and the aforementioned Kikuchi. They pointed to Stripling or minor leaguer Nate Pearson as being obvious additions to the rotation if necessary.

Well, first off, Ryu’s been a non-factor and is now recuperating from Tommy John surgery. In six games he struggled, lasted just 27 innings and had an ERA of 5.67. Few were utterly surprised. At age 35, Hyun is not coming into his prime and let’s face it – he has a reputation for being oft-injured. The fact that he wasn’t in 2020-21 might be the outlier, not the fact he’s out for a season now. He missed all of 2015 and almost all of ’16 from surgery too. And it was well-noted his results and fastball velocity (at best one of the lowest in the league) had begun to drop off in the second half of last year. Sorry Mr. Atkins, Ryu’s inability to contribute this year is VERY PREDICTABLE. It was foolish to pencil him in as a #3 starter.

Kevin Gausman was the big free agent splash in the off-season, coming off a career best year with San Francisco. All things considered, Gausman’s delivered. He’s not quite matching last year’s numbers, but at a 3.16 ERA (despite a weird 8-9 won/lost record) and career best rates of walks allowed (1.5 per 9 innings) and homers given up (one per 18 innings), he’s done all that can be expected. As team scribe Keegan Matheson points out, he’s deserved better. For instance on the weekend’s loss to Cleveland, Cavan Biggio let a “soft fly ball” drop in, in a hole in right field and what would have been a second out was instead an inning-prolonging RBI double. Gausman was pegged as the #2 guy on a star rotation, and thankfully, he’s delivered.

Even better than Gausman has been All Star Alek Manoah. Currently he’s sixth in MLB pitchers in WAR (3.3) and sixth in innings pitched in the AL. At 12-5, 2.56 he’s easily the best “#4 starter” in the AL this year and deserving his placement in the All Star game. But, there are a few clouds on the Manoah horizon. Namely, this is only his second pro season. Last year, his first as a professional, he threw 146 innings, 35 of them in his very short minor league career. This year he’s already up to 137, and if things remain as we hope, he’s going to be around 200 before the playoffs begin. I’m not a big believer in “babying” pitchers or limiting innings counts unnecessarily but it does seem to be a bit of a stretch for him to so greatly exceed his entire pro career total innings this year and be effective. In his last three starts, the ERA has risen quietly from 2.24 to its current 2.56 and he’s giving up more hits than before. Signs point to the big youngster starting to tire out a little … just at the point where his contribution is more important than ever. That’s a real problem, and one that should have been PREDICTABLE.

Then there’s Berrios. If Gausman was the big free agent, Berrios was the big “news” of the off-season, with the team signing him to a 7 year, $131M deal based on how impressed they were with his personality and two months he pitched here in 2021. It seemed reasonable. Berrios is smart, strong, and had career numbers that seemed to be slowly, but constantly, improving. And at age 28, he should be in his peak form for the next two or three years.

Instead, Berrios has been terrible. Inexplicably terrible. His 5.61 ERA is among the worst of any regular pitchers anywhere this year, and is worst among MLB’s so-called “qualified pitchers” (which is increasingly meaningless as fewer and fewer pitchers hurl enough innings to “qualify”). His 26 HR given up are worst in baseball too. Now, what’s weird is that nothing too much jumps out as being awful, or awfully different for Berrios this year than in the past. Baseball America still today note he has a “93-95 MPH fastball” and some scouts are still measuring his best pitches at 98, and that his slider is “sharp.” He’s throwing the same four pitches with about the same frequency as before, and his velocity is considered “league average” but his “chase rate” is 85th percentile…which is to say he’s getting batters to swing at a lot more bad pitches than most. Yet somehow, when he’s missing, he’s missing by a few inches and they’re slugging the ball. The exit velocity off his bat is 90.5 MPH, worse than average, and higher than the last two years and when they do connect, the ball is flying higher. His ground ball rate (of batted balls) is only 37%, the lowest since his rookie year of 2016. To say it’s frustrating is an understatement; it’s hard for pitching coach Pete Walker to tweak the problem when nothing appears to be an obvious problem. Put it down to bad luck and while Berrios bad results are UNPREDICTABLE , the basic concept of at least one star pitcher under-performing during the season should have been PREDICTABLE.

Which leaves us with Mr. Kikuchi. Let me say that, like fired manager Charlie Montoyo, Kikuchi the man seems like a decent, nice enough chap. Like manager Montoyo he also seems incapable of getting the job done. For every vaguely encouraging game, there have been several worse and worse yet ones from him. Since coming back from the IL with a “surprise” neck stiffness, he’s gone out four times. He’s not gone past 5 innings in any of them and has walked eight, given up five home runs and 15 hits in 17 innings for a 5.72 ERA. On the season, he’s averaging less than 4 1/3 inning per start and opponents are hitting .357 off him. That’s a career worst for him, but it is worth noting his best opponents average was a poor .314. Put another way, batters have always hit him hard and feasted when he was on the mound. Likewise, his home runs allowed are career worst but he’s not yet posted good numbers of that while in the majors. Maybe his ERA being 5.25 might be head-turningly bad, but it is worth pointing out it’s only been below 5 once in his three previous years. All in all, Kikuchi’s failure this year is of unexpected depths but should be rather PREDICTABLE. Thinking he was going to be a repeat Robbie Ray, a Cy Young winner out of thin air after being among the league’s least effective pitchers, was clearly the bad line of thinking, not those who thought he wasn’t going to pan out.

My bottom line – the way it’s going, Toronto is going to have trouble even picking up one of the three wild card spots. And should they do so, a rotation of Berrios, Gausman and a tired out Manoah (with perhaps Stripling when a fourth is needed) doesn’t fill me with confidence for October. Nate Pearson has never filled me with confidence but is still being bandied about as a possible “addition”, but with him on the 60-day IL with a lat injury (after being on the injured list with mono) and having pitched only 7 innings in the minors this year make it seem a very long stretch to expect anything more than an inning or two out of the bullpen from him in ’22.   Maybe I’ll be proven wrong; if so I’ll be a happy camper. But if I’m proven right … it’s time for the organization to replace Ross Atkins. The fact that the starting rotation has not been up for the job in 2022 is very PREDICTABLE.

Wait? What? Whit? And Other Trade Thoughts

So the Trade Deadline has come and gone for 2022, and to most observers the Blue Jays were curiously inactive for a team racing towards a post-season berth but still having too many holes to make a World Series seem likely. There was no “stud” starting pitcher added ala Luis Castillo, nor a huge power bat (which I didn’t think all that necessary anyway) and, thankfully to these eyes, no Juan Soto. Not that he’s a terrible player by any means but as we’ve looked at, his value is probably not what Washington asked for and San Diego had to give up to get him. But that said, Ross Atkins did make a trio of moves, all of which were decent if low-key.

First in the day yesterday, he listened to one of my recommendations (just kidding, but it was one I opined for in the last column), namely re-acquiring reliever Anthony Bass from Miami. He got a second arm in the deal, Zach Pop. Not exactly a household name overall, although he should be in some parts of the city – Zach is from Metro Toronto and was originally drafted by the Jays. Remarkably he appeared in 50 games last year for the Marlins, and posted decent but far from head-turning numbers. Bass was the more important addition to the bullpen, having been a big part of the 2020 Jays, saving 7 and playing in 26 out of the 60 games that shortened year. This year he’s posting a great 1.7 WAR (excellent for a middle reliever) and career best 1.41 ERA. Together they bolster the bullpen considerably, both by addition and subtraction. Toronto’s already designated redoubtable Anthony Banda for assignment (“fired” in everyday vernacular) and will somehow shift one of the lesser arms back to Buffalo or DFA them. It should help keep the team competitive in the 6th and 7th innings when the starter’s already in the showers.

They did get a starter to bolster the rotation eventually… but it wasn’t one that got fans up and cheering. In fact, many were scratching their heads. Mitch White sure doesn’t have the name recognition of a Luis Castillo, Carlos Rodon or Noah Syndergaard, and he probably won’t have the impact of the first two of those. Interestingly perhaps, I wasn’t one of the many hoping the Jays would get “Thor” Syndergaard back, which they allegedly were very close to before the Phils outbid them at the last minute – literally. Syndergaard has seen his velocity and strikeout rate drop off considerably this season and has an iffy past if you will, when it comes to social media and fan interaction. Hardly someone to boost the payroll by about $7M to get, which is about how much he’s still owed on this year’s salary.

Anyhow, White is definitely not a household name to most of us here (although I’m sure regular reader ‘Badfinger’ is very familiar with him) but has been doing a decent job as a fill-in starter with the Dodgers this season. In his last two starts for them, he combined to pitch 11 innings while allowing just 2 runs. He has a decent 3.70 ERA so far this season, his second, and the Jays blurb tells us the rightie has a good 94-96MPH fastball and three other pitches, a sinker, curve and slider. They only gave up two mid-range prospects to get him (plus an L.A. minor league infielder, Alex Dejesus) so the trade has to be seen as a decent one, even if not all fans had hoped for. And who knows, maybe Atkins will catch lightning in a jar twice as he did two seasons back picking up Ross Stripling from the Dodgers mid-season.

Most curious though was the trade for a former All Star… a versatile, speedy player many hoped would come to Toronto a couple of seasons back. But no one expected to be a Blue Jay in 2022. Fans who didn’t know Whit Merrifield a month ago – though there should have been few of them – did after he made sports headlines by being the biggest name of 10 Kansas City players who didn’t make the trip to Toronto for a series because they were unvaccinated and not allowed across the border. Merrifield then added fuel to the fire – for his fans at least – by making statements to the effect of maybe he’d get vaccinated if his team was competitive (ergo cared at all about winning or losing a three-game series). Everyone expected him to be traded; few expected it to be to the team in the city he refused to travel to only weeks ago.

Toronto is playing in Tampa today and presumably Merrifield will go to a doctor or Walgreens ASAP and get the one-dose J&J vaccine and be able to join the Jays in Toronto sometime soon. The team doesn’t play at the Rogers Centre again until Aug. 12, so we hope that gives Merrifield enough time to be tested negative and deemed fully vaccinated and given his current location, he could join the team for games in Minneapolis or Baltimore before then.

Merrifield is having a bit of a down season, with a poor .643 OPS but he’s been one of the best get-things-done hitters in the AL over the past four or five years. In 2019 he lead the league with 206 hits and 10 triples; in 2018 he stole 45 bases. Last year, 40. And while primarily a solid second baseman, it’s of worth noting he has played CF in his career. Something more and more valuable to Toronto as George Springer‘s status becomes more and more dubious, this time due to a bad elbow. He’s been listed as “day to day” for many days now, in fact. Springer had a reputation in Houston of being “made of glass” and that’s not changed since he changed uniforms. A hard worker and power hitter to be sure, but one who seems to literally miss about as many games due to injuries as he plays. Having a speedy OF who can hit better than .107 (the current average of Bradley Zimmer, the best defensive replacement for Springer but a veritable black hole at the plate) will certainly benefit the team, and give them a second good backup infielder along with Cavan Biggio. Considering the Jays only gave up young pitcher Max Castillo and a 16th ranked prospect for him, and that Whit is signed through next year at a “team-friendly” rate, it’s a great trade. But still a curious one.

So… nothing to knock our socks off. But, all in all the Jays now are a better team than they were on August 1, so we’ll give Atkins a passing grade for this trade deadline.

**** ****

Congratulations to Jordan Romano, named AL Relief Pitcher of the Month. Surprisingly he’s the first Toronto player to be so named since BJ Ryan back in 2008! Here, I pick my Players of the month and Pitchers of the month for the team and Romano was my pick as the top pitcher of July, with 7 saves, and a win in 10 games. Two of the saves were over an inning in length and he allowed ust one run in the ten. For what it’s worth , here are my other picks so far this year with a few highlights from their month explaining their choice-

APRIL: Guerrero, .286, .897 OPS, 6 HR, 16 RBI

Manoah 4-0, 1.44, started two shutouts

MAY : Bichette, 11 multi-hit games, 11 doubles, .537 slugging

Manoah, 5 starts, 2.03 ERA, 27K to 2 BB

JUNE: Kirk, .341, 7 HR, 18 RBI, two 4-hit games

Stripling 5 starts, 1 relief game, 4-1, 1.59

JULY: Chapman, 26 hits, 9 HR, .613 slugging, increased OPS by .082

Romano, 10 games, 12K, 7/7 saves, only one run allowed.

Congrats to all of them, and looked at, a reason for hope for the remainder of the season. It’s clear most , if not all of the main players have been helping the Jays this year, rather than have just one or two dominant superstars doing it all. This should bode well for them avoiding long slumps through the final third of the year. Fingers crossed…

Trade Deadline Noodlings – Soto? Oh No, I Don’t Think So

Something happened along the way. Thankfully the change in managers seems to have done the trick for the Blue Jays. Since John Schneider and his higher-energy approach to the game took over from Charlie Montoyo, Toronto’s gone 7-1, outscoring opponents 67-23 in those games. Wow. Something woke up those dozing bats. A change in managers will sometimes do that, as will losing 3-1 to a last place club who was missing ten regular players and started a AA pitcher, as was the case in the team’s one loss under the new boss, to the Royals. Whatever it is, the team seems to be playing like we’ve all known they’re capable of at last and seem comfortable, albeit far from locked into, second place in the AL East. Which should make the next week, leading up to the Trade Deadline all the more interesting. Here are a few suggestions on what I would like to see Toronto doing…and not doing.

First, the chorus remains the same. As has been obvious almost all season long, the starting rotation is iffy for a team with World Series hopes. It’s not terrible by any means, and in the little tear of late, it’s been looking quite good, but it remains clear that Priority #1 has to be adding at least one good starting pitcher. Right now, we have Jose Berrios, pitching more like his old self of late; Kevin Gausman, very good and reliable but not the standout ace he was in the first couple of months of the year; Alek Manoah, now popular everywhere after the All Star Game, maintaining his composure and his bid for a possible Cy Young in only his second season; and Ross Stripling, continuing to build up his durablilty and fanbase and looking like a really good #5 guy. Which leaves one hole…and that’s a problem! Rookie Max Castillo‘s impressed somewhat for a guy who wasn’t really even on the Prospects radar. He’s racked up 19 strikeouts in 18 2/3 innings in his first seven MLB appearances and sports a highly respectable 3.38 ERA. However, neither of his two starts have hit five innings nor 60 pitches and his ERA of over 5 in that very small two-game sample suggests batters might catch up to him the second time they see him in a game. Hardly someone we’d want to be relying on in, for instance a late-September game where a win was needed to secure a Wildcard. Although he might be a better risk than the official fifth guy, Yusei Kikuchi who’s on a rehab stint in Buffalo currently but who’s problems have been off-mentioned here this season. The team would be in real trouble if one of the big three – Berrios, Gausman or Manoah went down, even if only for a couple of weeks as happened recently to Gausman. The pitching depth isn’t there.

So, a new, star starter seems the most obvious addition to make. And the name everybody seems to bring up is Luis Castillo. And why not? Of the starters likely to be traded this summer, he might well be the best – he has a WAR this season of 3.2, his ERA is 2.77 and he’s cut down dramatically on what was his one big flaw last year – walks. He’s averaged better than a K per inning over the past four seasons and averages only about one homer given up per 15 innings – important for success in the hitter-friendly East. The problem with Castillo however, is that he is an obvious candidate. Few teams hoping to go far in October are not looking for a starter to add, and most seem to be looking to Cincinnati for that arm. So the Jays might get mired in a bidding war for Castillo and end up losing it nonetheless. So, while I’d like to add him to the roster, and would be calling the Reds, I’d also look to do something a bit off the beaten path. Like call the Diamondbacks.

Arizona hasn’t been really set as a “seller” this trade deadline. But, let’s face it. The Dodgers are running away with that division, Arizona is in last place and would have to overtake seven different teams to make the final Wild Card spot. Sure they’re notably better than the ’21 edition which wound up in last place 55 games out, but a lot of work needs to be done to make them a challenger to the Coastal California powerhouses. So who’s to say they wouldn’t listen to offers for one of their starters, who comprise a surprisingly decent crew. The Jays allegedly asked about Merrill Kelly two years ago. Time to ask again.

Kelly’s WAR so far is 2.9, and ERA 3.04, through a league-high 20 starts. Numbers quite comparable to Cincinnati Castillo’s. And this month he’s looked like he’s pitching to impress someone… he threw 8 innings of shutout ball last night against San Fran, improving his July numbers to 4-0, 1.57. Take away a rough outing against the Dodgers on May 17 (a 12-3 loss for Arizona) and he’d be 10-4, 2.39. And best of all, he’s not a free agent until after the 2024 season. Castillo is after 2023. Arizona won’t give him away, no question about that, but it might be worth avoiding the Cincinnati phone traffic jam and putting together a package that would appeal to a D’backs team possibly hoping to contend around 2024 to get him.

If they couldn’t swing either, it might be time to call the Giants, supposedly interested in trading Carlos Rodon. Rodon’s not perceived as being at quite at the same level as Castillo or Kelly, but numbers might suggest otherwise – his WAR of 3.4 is better than theirs and his 8-5, 2.95 record is quite enticing…especially after last season, in which he posted a 2.37 ERA through 24 starts for the White Sox. Amazingly he’s given up just 5 HR this season in 110 innings, a real attribute in our division. Credit that perhaps to a career average of only 24% of the balls hit off him being flyballs. And with him having an opt out in his contract after this season which all expect him to exercise, SF would probably take far less for him than the Reds or Diamondbacks would ask for their star arms we looked at.

Adding a great starter would be an obvious quick and huge improvement for the Jays chances, and would allow Kikuchi to work on his problems in the bullpen when he comes back, which seems preferable to putting him back in the rotation. And while the ‘pen all-in-all has been pretty decent this season, there’s no question a little boost would be welcomed. Closer Jordan Romano‘s been lights-out most of the time, and Alex Cimber and Tim Mayza have both been solid. Guys like David Phelps and Castillo (Max that is) have seemed workable, but there are still a few holes to be filled in games where more than about three innings of relief are needed. Time for a Bass-bounceback.

The Marlins are supposedly offering Anthony Bass around, and he’d be a nice way to strengthen up the middle inning relief corps. One who’s a known quantity for the Jays; Bass after all was key in the 2020 bullpen for us. This season he’s got a career-best 1.51 ERA over 42 Miami appearances and is allowing less than a baserunner per inning. He has a reasonable club option ($3M) for next year, so no wonder MLB list him as the most interesting player on the Marlins in terms of trading. He might be the best middle reliever bandied around this coming week, but given that such players are often considered “a dime a dozen” by owners and front offices, Toronto could probably get him for not much more than a couple of mid-level prospects a year or two away from the bigs.

Another return that might be worth considering for the Jays is Brandon Drury of the Reds. The third baseman there spent the end of 2018 as well as 2019-20 here, and seemed a serviceable but unremarkable backup infielder. Playing regularly this season with a mediocre team, he’s raised all his numbers – his .856 OPS is better than 200 points higher than either season with Toronto, and he’s driven in 57 in just 325 AB. And he’s still a versatile, decent infielder who could back up 2B, SS and 3B here. He’s a free agent this winter, so you can bet Cinci will listen carefully to any offers.

Those are some ideas of what I would do if I was Ross Atkins. What I wouldn’t do is this … bother trying to acquire Juan Soto. Sure he’s a major talent, sure he led the NL in walks last year (145, quite impressive!) and is leading it again this year and even if his numbers are down so far in ’22 (.491 slugging from .534 last year and .695 in ’20; .248 BA after a .289 start to his career) he’s likely to develop into a true superstar…and he won’t be a free agent until after 2024. However, there are two red flags which should stop Toronto from wading into the Soto auction – which let’s recall was mostly set off when he turned down a $440M, 15 year offer from the Nationals. First, Toronto’s big problem isn’t scoring runs. Despite often seeming to be under-achieving pre-All Star break, the Jays 468 runs scored so far in ’22 is second-best in the AL, and comes after a season where they were among the league leaders in all major offensive categories. Adding Soto would boost the hitting some, but considering that he’d be likely to be replacing either Teoscar Hernandez or Lourdes Gurriel, he might not be boosting it by that much.

That point made, he’d still be a nice addition to the lineup. But at what price? He’s rumored to be looking at asking for $30M in arbitration next year. If he had a banner ’23 that could rise to over $40M for ’24. Adding salary like that could curtail the team’s spending on other, more necessary additions, such as pitching. But mostly, Washington’s asking for too much and will probably get it, if rumors are even close to true and about half of all the teams are inquiring about him. Would I trade, let’s say two high-end prospects like Orelvis Martinez and Gabriel Moreno for him? Probably so. Would I add in our top-rated minor league pitcher, Ricky Teidemann and either snazzy IF Jordan Groshans or hard-throwing Hagen Danner for him? No way. And that’s seemingly the entry level kind of bid Washington is listening to for Soto. To actually get him, they might have to throw in someone like Max Castillo or Julian Merryweather. That’s too much talent to let go of to bring in an outfielder who might add about three wins a year at best over the existing talent.

That’s what I’d be doing if I was Toronto’s front office. Any predictions about what they will do?

July 13 – Hoping For The Next Cito

Sometimes inevitable events still seem surprising. I think that was the reaction of most Blue Jays fans earlier today when with little warning, news broke that the team had “dismissed” manager Charlie Montoyo.

Some fans let out mighty online cheers, some lamented it but almost everyone seemed surprised that the team, seemingly adrift of direction for much of the season, finally did something. It’s been noted through the years that the tandem of President Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins are generally quite reluctant to admit mistakes even when it means sticking by chronic under-achievers or malcontents … anyone remember Derek Fisher? Even the exact timing surprises, in the middle of a short series against the Phillies, less than a week away from the All Star break and coming on the heels of a (rare of late) good win last night featuring a strong performance by pitcher Jose Berrios and a four-hit night for Lourdes Gurriel. Some speculate that a challenge he issued over a play at first base last night was the “final straw”, since it wasn’t upheld and Vladimir Guerrero had told him not to bother, he hadn’t made the play. But that would seem a mighty thin excuse for getting rid of a manager.

But there are plenty of reasons for letting him go, some of which we’ve touched on here this summer. They were terrible on a west coast trip last week, being swept by Seattle; going 2-for-20 with runners in scoring position on Friday night and then blowing a 4-1 lead on Sunday. Since June 28, the team has been a dismal 4-10 and are now looking over their shoulders at the surging Orioles more than looking ahead 15 games to try and catch sight of the dust the Yankees are leaving everyone else behind in. Part of that cannot in any way be blamed on Montoyo – Kevin Gausman‘s banged up ankle for instance has made him miss a couple of starts, ineffective Yusei Kikuchi has a “sore neck” (the menace of otherwise healthy-seeming but horribly bad pitchers through the ages) and is on the IL and Charlie’s left with a roster making him start redoubtables like Anthony Banda and Casey Lawrence. But that’s not the whole story or reason.

The team was supposed to be an energetic powerhouse that could contend for the World Series and rack runs up with the best of them – literally. Instead it’s been a team of underachieving hitters who swing wildly at almost anything and are getting increasingly poor at running the bases. Teoscar Hernandez, he of 48 HR in just 193 games during 2020-21? Nine so far this year , and we’re in the second half of the year. His slugging percentage is his lowest since his 2016 rookie campaign with Houston. Bo Bichette? 25 for 26 in stealing bases last year. 5 for 11 this year. And we could go on from there. But…at least the team usually seems happy. Watch them hit a solo homer when trailing by several runs late in the game and they’re bouncing around, hugging, grinning, throwing that infernal jacket on the hitter, acting like they’re Joe Carter in the ’93 World Series. A string of bad games and blown leads seems to be water off a duck’s back to these happy-go-lucky youngsters. Which ultimately, may be unfair to blame Montoyo for, but whatever he’s doing, it’s clear he’s not motivating them to go out and run through walls for a win. He seems like a likable guy. I’ve not read even one person saying he’s a dour SOB . He’s no John Farrell. And that easy-going, laugh and play some bongos approach might work well in a mature, hard-working clubhouse. Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to really describe the 2022 Jays. So it was time for him to go.

So what does this suggest for the remainder of the season ? Well, Charlie’s in decent company. He’s the third manager to be fired this year, but he follows two good ones – Joe Girardi and Joe Maddon. Girardi got axed by last night’s opponents, the Phillies, on June 3. Maddon got fired in Anaheim by the Angels June 7 after a 12-game losing streak. Did it turn it around? Well, for the Phils, perhaps. They’re back in the thick of things in the NL East now, going an impressive 24-13 since firing Girardi who’d steered them to 22-29. The Jays would surely be happy if they could now win 24 of their next 37 games and could possibly even bridge a bit of the gap between them and first-place NY in so doing. But the Angels?

Well, maybe Maddon wasn’t the problem in the Trout-Ohtani World. Their freefall has continued unmitigated, going 11-21 since changing managers. If Toronto played that feebly over the next month, they would almost certainly take over the division basement.

This marks the sixth time * (well, really fifth… we’ll explain) the Blue Jays have had to fire a manager mid-season. It worked exceptionally well… once. In 1989, Jimy “One M” Williams led the team to an atrocious 12-24 start. Cito Gaston was promoted to manager, and the rest was history. They went 77-49 from there on in, and won the division. Three years later, Gaston led them to the first of back-to-back World Series championships. If this year’s crew could recover to play .607 (like the ’89 team) from now on, they’d go 45-31 and end up with… 91 wins. The same as last year. But at least that would almost guarantee them a playoff spot with this year’s expanded post-season.

The other times haven’t been such triumphs, unless you count Mel Queen. Mel Queen? Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember him. He won 4 of 5 after the team let Cito Gaston get an early start on his fall golfing, firing him in the last week of 1997. Queen didn’t return the next year.

The other times, two out of three firings resulted in improvements…but not big ones. In 2002, former catcher and future broadcaster Buck Martinez was fired after a 20-33 start. John Tosca replaced him, and righted the ship, being 58-51 for the rest of the year. But they still finished below .500.

Tosca in turn, got the boot in 2004 and was replaced by John Gibbons, aka “Gibby.” Tosca had gone 47-64, but Gibby did worse, going 20-30. They ended with their worst record since 1980, but the team liked what Gibby brought to the clubhouse and renewed him. For awhile…

But, in 2008 he got fired – largely because it was widely known some players were openly ignoring him and being disrespectful – after they started 35-39. They called in Cito Gaston (you don’t have to memorize too many names if thinking of Toronto managers people!) once more, and he improved the team , being 51-37 for the rest of the way. They finished with 86 wins, but in fourth place.

Maybe John Schneider will be the new Cito Gaston. We hope so, but even if he is, work remains to be done if the season is to be salvaged and fans will get to see ball in October. One might think that what this will do is make the current coaches also start to re-evaluate how they are doing their jobs too… but unless the 26 players become a little less thrilled when hitting a home run in a blow-out loss, they too might not be the real problem.

Random Thoughts…Oh My Lourdes,What A HR; Moreno Doing Fine Preventing Bench From Flying Off

A few random thoughts on the Blue Jays and baseball this weekend…

One has to hope that last night, playing in Seattle in front of a crowd that treated the Blue Jays like the home squad, had better be the low point of the season. If the 8-3 loss isn’t, call it a wrap people and look forward to 2023. I mean, Lourdes Gurriel muffing an ordinary flyball and having it deflect off his glove making the Mariners Dylan Moore a surprise recipient of a home run, wasn’t the low point of the game. That would probably be surprise starter Anthony Banda (in in place of Kevin Gausman, who’s still nursing a sore ankle after taking a 100MPH line drive off it last start) . Banda, a lefty with a career 5.60 ERA, picked up from the Pirates recently, had been a minor league starter and had his chance to shine. Instead he managed to go 2/3 of an inning before being yanked with the team already down by two and Seattle men on base…leaving people scratching their heads wondering “who’s Anthony Banda…and why’s he here?” It points out the folly of starting a season without at least three or four possible decent backup starters to compliment the regular five. Ross Stripling’s been fine in that role, but Yusei Kikuchi‘s meltdown and Hyun Jin-Ryu‘s season-ending surgery has negated that and left Toronto woefully under-manned on the mound.

Gabriel Moreno arrived with lots of fanfare almost exactly four weeks back. And why not? He was on MLB’s list of baseball’s top 10 prospects. Since then, despite the Jays having a workhorse’s schedule with almost no days off, he’s only appeared in a total of 15 games, often as a late inning sub, and accrued 54 plate appearances. He’s gotten out of the dugout four of the last eight games. Now, mind you, this coincides with Alejandro Kirk becoming the hottest hitting catcher in all of baseball, apparently destined to be the first Jay catcher ever voted into the All Star Game. Nothing wrong with using him a lot, something he seems happy with. But if Moreno’s role is apparently to just hold the bench down so it won’t blow away and be ready “just in case”…why is he here? We already have backup catcher Zach Collins for that purpose. Wouldn’t Moreno, and the team, be better served by having him get regular game time down in AAA Buffalo until he’s actually needed here?

And last but not least, maybe the best move Ross Atkins made this past off-season was one he didn’t make! How’d you like to be the supposedly rebuilding-to-contention Tigers? Their big off-season acquisition, Eduardo Rodriguez is missing in action. Literally. He’s been absent from the team now for almost a month, and the Tigers say they haven’t heard from him at all in three weeks. Apparently there’s some kind of marital discord at the Rodriguez home, but Al Avila, Detroit’s general manager, who thought he pulled off a coup signing the hard-throwing Venezuelan to a five year, $77M contract last winter says it’s “unusual” but they have no choice but “to wait it out” and see if he picks up his phone again to let them know he’s alive… let alone gets back on a plane headed for Michigan. As short of pitching as Toronto is, seems they dodged a bullet there by not outbidding the Tigers!

Blue Jays Wednesday Wonderings

Two things on my mind today with the Blue Jays. First the good…fans take a bow.

The All-star balloting has been remarkable so far, with Toronto fans turning out in force to honor the team. Vladimir Guerrero, Bo Bichette and Alejandro Kirk all lead their respective positions, and George Springer, ranking third in the OF would be a starter as well based on current tallies. Kirk is the third-highest vote getter of all in the AL, with some 1.86 million ballots, well over double the catching runner up, Trevino of New York. In fact, his lead of over a million is the biggest disparity of any race in the Majors this year, and his votes are behind only Mike Trout and Aaron Judge overall. Guerrero has more than double his nearest rival, Ty France of Seattle. Even Danny Jansen is polling third in the DH race… despite playing only 19 games thus far due to injury. Remarkably, the Yankees, on a historic tear to start the year, and playing in the country’s biggest market, are coming in no better than third in voting at any position besides Judge in the outfield. Toronto fans are loyal, and vocal and this evidence should put to rest any theories, should they still exist, of Canada being a second-class baseball market. When you can out-fan the Yankees, you’re something special as a fanbase.

As nice as it will be to see the blue-and-white represented at the Summer Classic next month, it would be nicer to see them make a big splash in October in the post-season. And that leads to my second thought – all due respect to Keegan Matheson, but I think he’s wrong – Jose Berrios is the pressing problem for the team right now.

Matheson is the primary sportswriter for the Blue Jays website and a constant presence on Twitter with regards to the team. He’s an intelligent and interesting guy, but today he posted the story “this starter is key to fixing the Blue Jays’ rotation.” And he is meaning Yusei Kikuchi.

As a reminder, the rotation, supposedly a major strength to start the season, has been struggling of late. Kevin Gausman‘s had a so-so month after being All Star calibre the first two months this season. Alek Manoah, fresh off his rookie year last year, was expected to be the #4 guy but instead is tied for the majors’ lead in wins and has the second-best ERA for any Toronto starter – ever – this deep into the season. Only Roger Clemens bested Manoah’s 2.05 at the end of June, and that was back in the ’90s. Hyun Jin Ryu, last year’s opening day pitcher and expected to be a Cy Young candidate, pitched poorly when he did make the mound this season, and is done for the year, having Tommy John surgery. Ross Stripling has stepped up out of the bullpen to take his place, and done so nicely…in fact, given that he’s ranked as the team’s #6 starter, he might be the best bottom-of-rote guy in the league (4-2, 3.12). Which leaves us with Berrios and Kikuchi. Both have been entirely underwhelming and post negative WARs so far in ’22. Berrios has shown flashes of excellence, but few and far between; Kikuchi’s rarely had good outings so far.

Matheson though figures Kikuchi holds the key to success. “Berrios has a track record of remarkable consistency,” he points out, “so there’s still some optimism that his problems will correct soon.” He adds that with eight games in a week coming up, “shuffling Kikuchi out of the rotation for a start may not even be an option,” despite calls to demote him far and wide from fans and professional scribes alike. Which sadly is true…and to me makes getting Berrios back on track ASAP job 1.

Statistically, in some respects, Kikuchi has been a bit better than Berrios this season. His WAR isn’t as bad (though -0.5 is not good) nor is his unsightly 5.08 ERA, compared to Berrios 5.86. But other factors don’t look good for Yusei, like his mere 56 innings over 14 starts, or 4 per start on average. Down from his 5-and-a-half innings per start last year, and well below Berrios current average of 5 1/3 per go. Kikuchi’s lasted just four innings only twice in his last four starts despite averaging nearly 70 pitches per game. A career worst 5.6 walks per 9 innings will do that to you, even if he is sporadically striking out lots. Especially when hitters are hitting him harder than before – his slugging pct. against has risen from .366 in ’20 to .432 in ’21 to .508 this year.

So given that, why do I disagree with Matheson? Because, I think the team’s working on a largely false assumption – that Kikuchi can be turned into an All Star. I think they were swept up in the fun of 2021 in which Robbie Ray won the Cy Young for the team. With Kikuchi, they saw something they thought was like Ray a year ago – a hard-throwing lefty with control issues who could be turned into a pinpoint strikeout machine. Sadly, they are probably wrong. After all, his ERA this season (5.08) is barely any different than what his career number was entering the season (4.98) despite walking more than ever. As manager Montoyo points out “they’re (Kikuchi and pitching coach Pete Walker) always working in the bullpen to make adjustments…of course he hasn’t been able to do the adjustments.” A rare moment of sympathy for Montoyo; there are only so many times he can clearly say “Kikuchi needs to throw strikes” and obvious options like dropping Kikuchi from the rotation aren’t really options given the comparative lack of pitching depth in Buffalo to call upon.

Which is why Berrios getting back to his form is important. Berrios had a +3.3 WAR last year, now he’s at -0.6. Last season he was giving up a homer per eight innings, this year one every four and a half. Currently he has given up more runs than any other pitcher in the AL this year – which at least highlights that he’s giving innings at times at least. But his ERA of 5.86 is miles below his career one of 4.04 at season’s beginning. Yet, as Matheson points out, he’s still usually in or around the strike zone and there’s nothing obviously wrong with his delivery. Finding whatever small thing he’s doing wrong and tweaking it could turn him back into an above-average starter again. That is Pete Walker’s job one.

The Blue Jays can probably endure having a bad Kikuchi in the rotation, at least until they can pull off a trade for a Frankie M… err, an “upgrade”. Very few teams have a rotation of #1 through 5 all pitching like stars. What they can’t endure, if they wish to stay competitive, is having a bad Kikuchi and a bad Berrios both in the rotation…especially when they pitch back-to-back. The bullpen, adequate but far from stellar, is getting burned out every time around having to pitch five or more innings, from behind, two nights running out of every five. And that in turn, is likely putting a lot of added pressure on Kevin Gausman, who’s spot comes up after those two. While I don’t know Kevin – and I’ll bet you don’t either – it seems reasonable to think that as a high-profile free agent new to the team, he’s putting a lot of pressure on himself now knowing how burned out the bullpen is. If he’s thinking “no room for even a small margin of error” on every pitch and focused on going past seven innings instead of getting the job done, it may explain why his June has been disappointing (although he was brilliant Monday, logging seven shutout innings and a season-high 110 pitches.) 

Work with Berrios, Pete Walker, and find the team another starting pitcher, Ross Atkins…and the Jays’ October may be as memorably starry as the All Star Game lineup.

Time For ‘Plan B’, Since ‘Yusei’, Kikuchi’s Not Getting It Done

The good news – Toronto’s ahead of Tampa in the standings, Teoscar Hernandez and Vladimir Guerrero are beginning to look like the Teoscar Hernandez’s and Vladimiar Guerrero’s we know and love at the plate once again, and rookie Gabriel Moreno is doing a good job living up to expectations early on in his career (like last night, when he had three hits and used his rocket arm to throw out Orioles speedster Jorge Mateo trying to steal second.) But don’t assume the glass full, or even entirely half-full yet. The bad news is that the Yankees seem to be running away with the division (sitting at a ridiculous 45-16 right now with no apparent signs of slowing down), and Toronto’s starting rotation was dealt a big blow yesterday. That with the not unexpected news that Hyun Jin Ryu needs elbow surgery and will miss the rest of the season, if not more. This puts all the more pressure on the existing staff…and one thinks, on Ross Atkins to beat the end-of-July rush and make a trade soon for another starter.

The rote as it is, isn’t terrible. Alex Manoah has become so regularly dazzling, we barely noticed his six inning, one hit, no runs performance on Monday to lower his ERA to 1.67. This from a kid who was an amateur player just three years ago. Kevin Gausman‘s looked more mortal this month than the first couple of months this season (actually walking three last time out) but all-in-all is still “money in the bank” reliable, good enough in all likelihood to make the All Star team. Jose Berrios hasn’t found a good groove yet but is giving the team innings and in all likelihood will improve to something resembling his past performance. Ryu’s spot has been filled in nicely by Ross Stripling, who seems to be loving the chance to finally have a regular, set role in the lineup. In his last two outings, he threw 56 then 74 pitches and gone 11 innings, allowing a mere two hits. Which brings us to Yusei Kikuchi.

Kikuchi’s, as noted before, got a great fastball and lots of potential. But…he’s nothing if not erratic. So far this year, he’s started a dozen games. The result, 2-3, a 4.80 ERA and a negative WAR. He’s lasted beyond five innings only three times, and if you take away those three games, he’s posted a 6.76 ERA. And he’s not been a victim of horrible bad mound luck… Baseball Reference have his “expected ERA” at 5.19. Credit that to the fact that hitters are driving the ball with a 49% “hard hit” rate when they are connecting with his pitches…and too often they don’t since he’s walking too many. So far, 32 walks in about 50 innings; last night he walked four in just four innings. Manager Charlie Montoyo is clear on the subject : “he needs to throw strikes. It’s kind of tough to play from behind somebody. There’s too many non-competitive pitches…having said that,” he added “there’s always hope, because he has good stuff.”

Which is true, but unlike Robbie Ray last year, he’s not responding to the magic formula dished up by coach Pete Walker to boost the strikeout rate and be stingy with free passes. Waiting for him to find the right formula of pitches and control them well might yield a good payout…but seems like a luxury a team competing for a playoff spot can’t really afford to wait long on. Not only is he putting the team behind early on, by going less than five innings generally, he’s putting an added burden onto an already over-stretched (and over-manned perhaps) bullpen. Another dozen starts by him like the first dozen will probably make it much harder to even stay ahead of Tampa.

Worse yet, if something was to happen to one of the current five, the choices for a replacement aren’t deep. Casey Lawrence would probably get the call, and to be fair, that 34 year old rightie has been excellent in the minors this year at Buffalo – 8-1, 1.77 so far, with two complete games even. He’s allowing barely over half a hit per inning. But AAA isn’t the majors, especially not the American League East and to be truthful, there’s not a lot to back Lawrence matching anything close to that level of excellence should he make the big leagues. None of his pitches are extraordinary, and in his past, two major league seasons (between Toronto and Seattle) have seen him mostly pitch out of the bullpen, with a 6.48 ERA and -1.0 WAR. He’s obviously learned to “pitch” better now, select pitches and locations better, but betting a potential World Series on him being able to do that for, say 15 MLB starts, seems poor logic at best. Beyond Lawrence, the options get increasingly bleak for rotation help within the Jays farm system this year.

So, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again … it’s time to trade for another good starting pitcher. Moreno has shown that he’s ready for the “Show”, leaving Toronto with three above-average catchers. They have a good infield with two of the best prospects in baseball being nearly ready, Orvelis Martinez and Jordan Groshans, their #2 and 3 prospects overall (or #1 and 2, considering that their “#1 prospect”, Moreno , is already here.) Nate Pearson continues to impress a few with his 100 MPH heat, though his lack of pitch control and his many times on the IL have seen his star fall in the last year. Add in a good number of usable, if not brilliant, bullpen arms and there should be enough to put together a package for Frankie Montas, or at least Merrill Kelly, or Cal Quantrill we mentioned here before…even Madison Bumgarner might be worth exploring . Kikuchi himself might be interesting to a team who sees his potential upside and have the “luxury” of waiting on it a year or so to show itself. Alex Anthopolous endeared himself to the fans and turned the season around in 2015 by trading for David Price, then a high-end stud pitcher. The 2022 team is better than that squad in many ways. Imagine how popular Atkins could suddenly become if he could pull off a similar trade this week.