Stop The Presses! Jays Bullpen Gets A ‘Hand’

OK… this is an inconvenience I like! I found myself having to edit this post a bit mid-way through writing when I glanced at the MLB site and found Toronto just traded for Brad Hand. Nice!

The bullpen, as I’ve mentioned here of late, has been disasterously unreliable since May and although Jordan Romano (who’s hitting 100 on the radar fairly often now, for what it’s worth) has been alright as the stand-in closer, and newcomers Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards likewise have been perfectly adequate, far too many close games have continued to go out the window in the 7th and 8th inning for a team hoping to make a serious playoff run. Which Toronto should be this year. A veteran, reliable, southpaw closer will greatly enhance the chances. Best off, the Jays only gave up Riley Adams to get him. Dealing from a position of strength – catching. Adams played a game or two earlier this season and was ranked as the team’s 17th top prospect, potentially a half-decent major league catcher down the road. But in Toronto, he was only fifth in line behind current regular (when healthy) Danny Jansen, Reese Mcguire, roly-poly Alejandro Kirk and minor league sensation Gabriel Moreno. Even if Adams is Washington’s everyday catcher in 2023, this will be a trade that made sense.

It’s encouraging because it shows the Jays are going to make an effort, not throw in the towel. Some have suggested the other direction would be wise, not remembering 2015 apparently when a team only a game over the .500 mark in late-July made it to the ALCS after trading for David Price and Troy Tulowitzki, plus a few other minor actors. True, Toronto is in fourth right now, and haven’t been able to gain momentum in terms of long winning streaks. But…

the tide could turn. Tomorrow the team will return to Toronto for the first time in nearly two years. No offense to Buffalo, a good backup plan and fine hosts, but Sahlen Field and Erie County isn’t quite the same as Rogers’ Centre and a rollicking hometown crowd. They kick off an 11-game homestand at home , which could be the sparkplug the team’s been needing. And the schedule begins to look brighter too. Only five games remain against the division leading Red Sox, four of them in Toronto. They get to play the lacklustre Orioles ten times still, by comparison. In fact, of the remaining 64 games, 28 are against team’s with losing records right now, 36 against opponents with worse records than the Jays. More telling, Of all the games left to play, only the ones against the White Sox (four) and Rays (six) are against teams with better run differentials than Toronto. The Blue Jays could potentially really make hay in August and September, and will have a lineup bolstered by a decent left-handed bat, the versatile Corey Dickerson who’s about to start a minor league rehab after injuring his leg. He should be joining the big league Jays in about a week… which also gives them the flexibility to consider trading either Randal Grichuk or Lourdes Gurriel if need be.

The obvious areas of need is starting pitching now that Hand’s in to lend a “hand” to the late-innings out of the bullpen. I wouldn’t be selling the farm to rent Max Scherzer, (doubtful he’d re-sign in Toronto, and even if he would, would he be worth the $200M, five or six year type deal he’s bound to be getting elsewhere?) but would love to see them score either a cheap “rental” or two like Jon Gray, or better yet, dig a little deeper and bring in a plus starter under control for 2022 or beyond. German Marquez in Colorado is an obvious suggestion, so too Kenta Maeda of the Twins. Merrill Kelly‘s name has been mentioned, and he seems like a pitcher with a lot of promise in Arizona. There might be even better names not on the public’s radar that could be obtained. The Jays do have some coveted nuggets to offer to rebuilding teams, including the aforementioned outfielders, a quartet of high-prospect infielders on the left field side (Groshans, Martinez, Martin and Smith) plus some middle-of-the-road minor league pitchers that always are popular in trades.

Time for some creativity Mr. Atkins, and give the Ontario fans something to really cheer for tomorrow .

MVP Has A Nice Ring To It. Now Let’s Add A World Series Ring

Some Blue Jays thoughts coming out of last night’s All Star Game:

First, to start with the obvious, a big congratulations to Vladdy! Guerrero Jr. becomes the first Toronto player ever to win the All Star Game MVP, and did it in fine fashion with that mammoth home run. I’m not one to put much into the length a homer travels – a home run is a home run, they all look the same in a boxscore after all – but it’s hard not to be impressed with that blast which carried 468 feet. It wouldn’t matter what park that was in, it would be out! With Marcus Semien driving in the game’s first run, and Teoscar Hernandez getting a double later on, Toronto’s crew shone on the national stage, even if Bo Bichette failed to connect. It’s great to see the Jays getting attention and credit, league-wide.

Second, the game itself to me was an example of a great idea that went awfully wrong. I’m talking about the much-hyped uniforms, the first time they’ve worn special All star team ones. I always figured it was something the game needed; to me it looked ridiculous with one “team” wearing as many as nine different uniforms, not to mention confusing to casual viewers (my Mom was a prime example of that when we’d watch one of the Summer Classics together). It makes sense to have special jerseys for the AL and NL, with perhaps the player’s team logo on the shoulder. However, the Nike-designed pyjamas last night were just horrendous. It’s obviously a ploy to sell more merchandise, but I would be surprised it a lot of “cool kids” are running out to the sports stores to get theirs today.

Third, the second “Half” is upon us. Toronto is back in action on Friday, with 75 games left on the sched. Anyone reasonably competent in math can tell that 75 is actually less than half of the full 162. The Jays do so at 45-42, tied for third in the division with the similarly-underachieving Yankees. It’s a little disappointing, and the road ahead looks a bit arduous. If we go by conventional wisdom (which may be wrong of course), it will take at least 90 wins to score a Wild card spot this year, probably 94 or more to win the division. That means Toronto would need to win 45 of the remaining 75 to have even a realistic shot at the playoffs. That is doable… but not if they play the way they have so far this year. The fact that they had four players in the All Star Game, three of them in the starting lineup is proof enough that they are a talented lot who can score with the best of them. And while the quick default line is that the “pitching sucks”, that’s not so true. It doesn’t match the offense, but the team’s pitching has been adequate statistically. The team’s 3.99 ERA is sixth best in the league, as are their 30 quality starts. The pitching has actually outperformed the leading Red Sox substantially. So why then are they not winning?

Part of that comes from the bad performance of the bullpen in May and June. Early last week, 14 out of their last 18 losses were ones they were leading after 7 innings. The Jays have nine 1-run losses and counting, Five of those came in June. It’s rather obvious that if the bullpen could have done the job properly even half of those times, it would be a totally different story in the standings.

So, I give some credit to Ross Atkins for trying to address the problem lately by trading for Adam Cimber and Trevor Richards. Neither’s a high-profile reliever, but both have been good in limited time here so far and are upgrades. More needs to be done though, even if Ryan Borucki rejoins the roster as expected this weekend. They could start by activating John Axford, the (almost) hometown boy they signed out of retirement recently. In four minor league appearances so far, he’s got two saves, a win, and has allowed just one hit and one run over four innings. He’s throwing with good velocity, and would have to be better than the rather hapless trio of Rafael Dolis, Tyler Chatwood (recently put on the IL) and Jeremy Beasley, a trio Charlie Montoyo inexplicably calls on time and time again. The trio have a combined -1.5 wins above average according to Baseball Reference. That seems kind to them, but makes clear that almost any Tom, Dick or Jose out of the bullpen would be likely to improve the Jays chances of winning. So,job one for Atkins is probably to trade for another good reliever or three. Maybe job two actually.

Job one is likely finding at least one more good starting pitcher. Right now the team seems to have four, in Ryu, Ray, improving Stripling and rookie sensation Manoah. The odd man out is Stephen Matz, my pick for their Pitcher of the Month in April. His numbers don’t look awful – 7-4, 4.72 ERA, 15 starts. But after his first four great starts, which is to say from April 24 on, he’s made 11 starts, gone more than five innings only twice, allowed two or fewer earned runs only four times and has posted a 5.77 ERA. Piled on top of his bad numbers last year that made the Mets give up on him, it wouldn’t seem wise to put too much hope in Matz helping the team move into contention. Nor would it make too much sense to simply assume that the other four will all stay hot and healthy. Hyun-jin, while great since joining the Jays, has a checkered past health-wise, and Manoah had pitched all of 35 pro innings in his career before hitting the roster this spring. The time is right to be calling Colorado about Jon Gray, or possibly better, German Marquez, or the Twins about Jose Berrios. Or the Phils about Aaron Nola. Or maybe all of the above and more.

The Jays could still make a serious run for the glory this fall. But there is no time to waste. And it would be a shame to waste the opportunity to capitalize on a team which has drawn so much positive attention thus far in 2021.

Atkins Checks One Off ‘To Do’ List

Well, to give credit where it’s due, this week Ross Atkins got around to doing a few things to try and address the atrocious state of the Blue Jays bullpen. First he signed Ontario-born reliever John Axford. Today he started the Majors’ July tradefest a couple of days early by acquiring reliever Andrew Cimber and outfielder Corey Dickerson from the Marlins for infielder Joe Panik and a minor league hurler of little renown, Andrew McInvale. Cimber is a sidearmer with a slow fastball but good control and great success against right-handed bats. He has a 2.88 ERA over 34 1/3 innings this year for Miami.

This, while not completely turning the Jays bullpen around or making them championship caliber, is a great step in the right direction. With lefty Ryan Borucki pitching off the mound in rehab and closer-of-the-future Julian Merryweather perhaps back at the All Star Break, the ‘pen may actually be able to be seen as a “plus” in the second half… which would be a minor miracle considering that as of June 26, the Toronto Star noted that 13 of the team’s last 17 losses were games they were leading after 7 innings. Of late there’ve been all too many games like June 11th’s 6-5 loss to the division leading Red Sox, with the Bosox coming back from a 5-1 deficit late. Tyler Chatwood facing three batters, hitting two, walking the other and throwing two of 14 pitches for strikes didn’t help. And he’s still ostensibly one of the more reliable guys they have out there in the pen. This has to be addressed if they have any real hope of making the post-season, let alone making a real run for the glory.

So all that in mind, here’s my little almost-mid-season “to do” checklist for the Blue Jays.

  1. Vote Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Marcus Semien into the All Star Game. This one is on us, the fans really. A quick glance at the stats shows that Guerrero is head and shoulders above any other First Baseman this year, and fans are giving him his due, with 78% of the final round votes so far. Semien isn’t quite as dominant but is still clipping along with an outstanding .865 OPS (35% above league average), .281 average and 18 homers while playing outstanding defense at a position new to him. He also leads in voting for Second Basemen, but in a much closer race than the 1B one. If the pair both get voted in, it’ll be the first time this century two Jays got voted in to the game in a year (kind of surprising that Bautista and Encarnacion never did simultaneously.)
  2. Speaking of Marcus Semien, why not flip-flop him and Bo Bichette defensively in the infield? Semien’s a career shortstop, and a darn good one. Bichette has admittedly only played SS in the majors, but did move around the infield a little in the minors, and is flubbing the position. No one can second-guess his hitting skills or his effort, but 11 errors already – mostly throwing ones – and a sub-par .959 fielding percentage indicate he’s not getting any better at playing short in his third season. Since a big problem of his is throwing across the diamond, he might be better at second ( less distance to throw should mean a little more accuracy), Semien would be back where he’s gold, and could also help out covering some balls the Third Baseman (be it Biggio or Espinal, with Panik gone now) aren’t reaching. Besides, with Kevin Smith bubbling under, and Austin Martin and Jordan Groshans (2 of the team’s top 3 prospects overall) both being close to MLB-ready and all playing short, there seems little reason to lock Bichette in as the “shortstop of the future.” Let him try another spot and hope it takes.
  1. Get John Axford up here… soon! It is a telling story of how bad the bullpen has been that many fans are clammering to see Axford back on the mound. That is, a 38 year old who was retired, and last pitched in the bigs in 2018 (54 innings but a terrible 5.27 ERA) , After that, one – yes, one – inning of minor league ball and out. Yet he was not only a fan favorite, essentially a hometown boy, but pretty decent in his short stint in Toronto back in ’18 and is said to be throwing harder than ever in practices. If he can find the strike zone, he’ll instantly be among the most reliable arms for the 7th and 8th.
    1. Add a quality starting pitcher, ASAP. Two wouldn’t hurt. Sure, Hyun Jin Ryu’s been good, albeit not Cy Young good, and Robbie Ray’s been a changed man by suddenly throwing strikes and not walking away losses ( a career low 2.2 walks per 9 innings, down from a head-turning 7.8 last year). 23 year-old rookie Alex Manoah has been excellent four out of six starts to begin his career (a 3.34 ERA although averaging under 5 innings a start) and Ross Stripling has been good more often than not in June after a rough beginning to the season. Steven Matz is apparently healthy after a minor bout of Covid which kept him out of the lineup for about three weeks, but has struggled after a great April. Collectively, they might be good enough for the team to compete, given Toronto’s great hitting which should improve now that George Springer is playing again. That is if they stay healthy for the rest of the year, and if they all keep their good habits. That’s a lot to hope for, and even if it comes true, we’re still not mistaking them for the ’71 Orioles or ’95 Braves. Clearly another great starter or two is a big priority, preferably one who can dominate in a big-ticket October game.

Now, clearly that is easier said than done, since star starting pitchers are panda-rare these days and ones being bandied around for trades, even scarcer. But, that isn’t to say they don’t exist. That’s what makes today’s Miami trade more interesting. Although a good bullpen arm was the selling point, it’s worth noting they also pick up an above-average outfielder in Dickerson. Although battling through a foot injury and likely to not be ready until after the All Star Game, Dickerson gives the Jays another much-needed left-handed power bat and a good defensive potential. He, along with the newly healthy Springer, mean the team has a surplus of above-average outfielders. Add in Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel and Teoscar Hernandez, and you have five to fill three positions, or maybe four if one DHs every day. Thus one of them could be traded, and coupled with a good minor league arm (say Anthony Kay or Jacob Waguespack) it might lure a team into parting with an above-average starter they won’t need this year. Kyle Gibson of Texas quickly comes to mind. Gibson is sitting at 6-0 with an ERA of 2.00-even so far despite pitching for the last-place Rangers. The ERA is best among regular AL starters this year, and also a plus for an AL East suitor, he’s only allowed 6 homers in 15 games. He’s signed through next season, and with the Rangers firmly entrenched in last place in the AL West, it would seem they might be interested in moving ahead by moving Gibson while he’s hot. The Rangers have scored fewer runs than any divisional rival and either Grichuk or Gurriel would be a step or two above their LF tandem of David Dahl and Willie Calhoun. Other names worth considering would be German Marquez or Jon Gray of Colorado, or Carlos Carrasco of the Mets if his back allows him to resume pitching soon. Or, perhaps Ross can pull a rabbit out of a hat and surpise everyone with a pitcher not even mentioned in trade rumors so far. The trade today show’s he knows work needs doing; let’s hope he keeps busy in the next month.

Vlad’s Doing His Part. Time For Ross To Do His From The Office

Now that we’re more than a third of the way through the season, 2021’s seeming like a rather frustrating year for Blue Jays fans. There are signs of greatness to be sure, but the bottom line is they’re still battling the bafflingly-dismal Yankees for third place in the division. They aren’t winning any more regularly than they were last year. For all that though, it is becoming a season to remember; to behold and enjoy. That reason of course is Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

We remember the hype surrounding Guerrero when he came to the Majors as the highest-rated prospect in baseball. We remember equally the slight disappointment we felt and huge anger some fans felt over his first two seasons when he appeared fairly good but far from a star, and out of shape to boot. Well, we should have remembered how young he is – just turning 22 recently – and have faith that he (and no doubt his Hall of Fame dad) weren’t pleased with the 2019-20 seasons either. Vlad slimmed down, worked hard and has arrived in 2021!

As of this morning, #27 hasn’t missed a game this season, pretty good going. He’s largely playing First Base (something many doubted he’d ever do, assuming him destined to DH full-time), and doing it well. And at the plate… boy. Currently he leads all of MLB with his incredible 1.098 OPS and his 18 home runs. His .333 batting average is best among AL hitters with 150+ at bats, being 8 points ahead of Yuli Gurriel in Houston. He leads in On Base Percentage and Slugging (a .662 percentage, a full 74 points ahead of equally head-turning Shohei Ohtani) and is third in runs scored – 44, three behind Mark Canha – and RBI, 47 (just one off the lead.) He’s even somehow managed to turn into a faster-than-average base runner!

To put it in perspective, if he keeps it up, and that is a big “if”, he’s in good shape to become the first “Triple Crown” winner in the league since Miguel Cabrera in 2012. And Cabrera didn’t lead in On Base Pct. nor in hits, (which Guerrero is also currently third in). Before that you’d have to go back to 1967 to find another such Triple Crown, in Carl Yastremzki. In short, Blue Jays fans are seeing something special. American writers have picked him as the early obvious candidate for the league MVP and hypothesized that he is the single easiest pick for the All Star Ballot in either league. By my personal count, he’s been the Blue Jays “player of the game” 13 times already this season, nearly a quarter of all their games.

At the same time, this should be a wake-up call for Ross Atkins. Pre-season predictions are more or less being fulfilled in the Jays camp – they’re scoring runs like champions (even without George Springer and with a few noticeable disappointments so far like Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel) but the pitching is letting the team down, increasingly regularly. The starting was fairly bad early on while the bullpen shone. More recently, the rotation has been decent – although not championship caliber – and the ‘pen has developed a habit of letting even large leads walk away. Usually literally, by way of base on balls after base on balls. This team needs pitching upgrades and the time to begin making those phone calls is now. It’s hard to imagine the Rockies would hold onto Jon Gray, with his free agency looming and the team buried 13.5 games behind in baseball’s best division, should a good offer come along. The Reds case isn’t as dismal, but being below .500 and with key stars underperforming, they too might be willing to part with their own soon-to-be free agent Gray, Sonny. Either would be a solid upgrade over anyone the Jays have offered up as a #5 starter this season, and could perhaps let Ross Stripling, who’s been up and down all season, stabilize the bullpen some. Maybe there are other pitchers, either stalward starters or fireballing relievers on the market I’m not even thinking of yet. Go find them Mr. Atkins. Because while it’s fantastic to see young Vlad rise towards superstardom, it’s also frustrating to see him do that on a mediocre team. Ask Angels fans about that feeling.

It is rare, what Guerrero is doing this season so far. It is to be enjoyed, but it is also for the team to take advantage of. Because we can’t count on him doing the same next year, or the year after, no matter how good he is. That is why, in fact, Triple Crowns are rare. So too World Series. Let’s go for broke and go for both this year.

Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta’s Hitting Fool & Baseball Pariah

On May 21, Atlanta romped all over Pittsburgh, 20-1. A memorable score, and a game which may be even more memorable now. In it, Braves outfielder Marcell Ozuna hit his 7th homer of the year, his 173rd in a seemingly promising career. As it turns out it should be his final MLB home run. One would think it probably will be just that.

Of course Ozuna was arrested the past weekend in suburban Atlanta in the process of beating up his wife. A 911 call was made from his home, Sandy Springs police responded and, hearing screaming, entered to reportedly see him grabbing her by the throat, tossing her against a wall and hitting her face with his hand which was in a cast (between homer #7 and that point, he’d injured a hand and had been put on the Injured List). They charged him with “aggravated assault, strangulation, misdemeanor battery – family violence charges.” If found guilty, these carry mandatory prison time. The county refused to let him out on bond initially, although he is now freed with a restraining order. The wife apparently didn’t want to go to hospital but told police he’d stolen her celphone and threatened to kill her; he allegedly admitted to taking her phone because he was suspicious of her behavior and that he might have slapped her after she kicked him. A story which would rise near the believable level had not more than one police officer seen otherwise.

Now, this is not a defense of his wife Genesis, whom he’s apparently divorcing. She may have kicked him. She might have been fooling around on him as he seemingly suspected. She seems like she might have her own temper problems given that she was charged with hitting him with an ashtray in another domestic dispute last year. But it is a simple suggestion that Baseball has little recourse now other than banning him for life.

Now twenty years ago, Ozuna would have been free to return to the lineup as soon as his hand healed up, and in all likelihood his lawyers (or the team’s) would have managed to have his trial put off until it wasn’t going to interfere with his season. Five years ago, he would’ve been facing a stern warning from the sport and a suspension of a few games. I know I’m not the only one who still recalls current Yankees superstar reliever Aroldis Chapman getting a 30 Game suspension in 2016 for his role in an assault on his wife or girlfriend, which incredibly didn’t result in criminal charges but did involve police and him firing his gun towards the female. At the time, Rob Manfred called his actions “inappropriate – particularly his use of a firearm.” Two years after that, then Blue Jays reliever Roberto Osuna notched a 75-game suspension on top of several weeks of inactive limbo while the league investigated him after he was charged with assaulting his girlfriend in Toronto. Canadian authorities eventually dropped charges when she refused to co-operate and left the country.

But times have changed, and now for better or worse, the league has no real option but to end his career. Enter 2021. Angels pitching coach Mickey Calloway found out how much things have changed when he was fired by his team and suspended from all baseball activities until the end of next year for acting like the jock jerk we all hated back in high school. Apparently five women had complained he had been “sending shirtless photos” of himself to them and asking for nude pictures in return. He also apparently one time “thrust his crotch” towards a reporter. It wasn’t reported if said crotch was in pants or bare; it probably doesn’t matter anyway. He was being an immature man/boy and got fired and an almost two year barring from the sport as a result.

A month or two earlier, Blue Jays advisor and (until then) person to throw out in front of cameras for PR opportunities, Roberto Alomar was barred for life by Manfred, and obviously enough, fired by Toronto. The reasons for this are a little foggy, but what we know is some female involved with baseball complained about an incident in 2015 of a sexual nature. She didn’t call police but MLB investigated and decided Alomar had breached protocol and acceptible standards and added him to the Pete Rose Wall of Shame, players or personalities ineligible to ever again take part in anything to do with the sport.

In context of that, there seems no way anything less than barring for life could serve justice in the Ozuna case, even if he somehow avoids prison. Note that in the end neither Chapman or Osuna were found guilty in court but both were judged guilty by Rob Manfred – and with apparent good reason. Trying to strangle a woman and hitting her with police present seems more than apparent good reason.

So there you have it. The Atlanta Braves will probably be a worse team on field for the rest of the season but a better group of men for it. Some might argue that baseball should leave policing to the police, but whether or not you believe that, the horse has already left the barn. Baseball is now enforcing a code of conduct off-field as well as on, and their reaction to Marcell Ozuna must now make that clear to the 779 other rostered players, as well as impressionable young guys chasing their diamond dreams.

Mound Turtle Beats The Jackrabbit

North Americans seem obsessed with speed. A lot of us are in awe of a car that can hit 160 mph even if we’re only going to drive the tots to daycare and use it to buy groceries at Walmart. Baseball fans are the same. Give ’em a pitcher who can routinely throw past 100 mph, and they’re dazzled…even if the guy can’t “pitch.” This week’s Blue Jays game showed that clearly.

First in a 7-4 loss to Houston we saw the much ballyhooed season premier of Nate Pearson, the team’s top-rated prospect according to Baseball America and many other pundits. He lasted 2 1/3 innings, tossed 64 pitches which resulted in five walks and four Astro hits, with zero strikeouts. Not that atypical of his MLB career thus far, brief as it has been. Through six starts, he’s walked more than struck out and has been saddled with an ugly 6.61 ERA. Some of the faithful pointed out in the Astros game, he was only throwing 97 mph, well down from his peak at about 104. Few point to the chart of his pitches which showed a spray of pitches, mainly inside and above the strike zone, with a flair of balls near the dirt and outside and a handful smack down in the middle of the plate at belt level.

Contrast that to Hyun Jin Ryu‘s Wednesday 4-1 win in Atlanta. Ryu, in the words of manager Charlie Montoyo “was back to ryu, throwing strikes, keeping batters off balance…you don’t know what’s coming.” He lasted seven “effortless” innings, throwing 94 pitches. It’s typical of Ryu’s career. He throws at least five different types of pitch, typically with no more than 40% of them being fastballs. Add in changeups about a quarter of the time and a good cutter, a few sliders and curves and the batter is indeed left “off balance”. He throws strikes, keeping the walk total thankfully low (22 in 107 innings since joining Toronto). The strikes tend to be low and if connected with, result in groundballs about twice as much as flyballs. All of which result in him having the second lowest ERA in the majors among starters since 2018 – 2.33, trailing only Jakob DeGrom. All that while throwing a fastball averaging just 90 mph, and an 80 mph changeup. Somewhat like Greg Maddux, the Braves superstar of the ’90s and his four Cy Young wins, who threw five pitches, caught the edge of the strike zone routinely and many games topped out at 85mph.

If you’re on a highway, a little added pep can come in handy if you have to suddenly pass a slow-moving tractor. But as any cop will tell you, speed also kills. Much the same is true in baseball. Having a little bit of fire in the glove, so to speak is not a bad thing for a pitcher. But if it’s at the expense of placement, technique and plain ol’ “smarts”, it’ll kill the team.

It’s far too soon to write off Nate Pearson. Most star pitchers don’t jump out of the gate as Cy Young contenders as soon as they make the Big leagues. But for Pearson to succeed, he might want to look more at Hyun Jin Ryu, and less at that shiny radar gun.

By George…Toronto’s Glass Half Full!

The Blue Jays head into their final game of April tonight leaving fans a little unsure of just what this year’s edition really is. A win tonight would bring them to .500 on the season, which isn’t quite what we had hoped for…but neither is it atrocious. As it stands, the 11-12 Jays are third in the division, 3.5 behind the surprising Red Sox, but notably ahead of the critics’ darlings, the Yankees. With Kansas City off to a galloping start in the AL Central, and journeyman minor leaguer Yermin Mercedes being a sudden MVP candidate so far, it looks like 2021 might be the year that anything’s possible. So, I say let’s look at that half-full Toronto glass.

Yes, 11-12 is disappointing but there are reasons for optimism and to expect May – and future months – to be better. For starters, consider that Toronto has had the fewest home games of any team in the AL, eight so far out of 23. Compare that to the Bosox who’ve been in Fenway for their home-cooked chow-dah 16 out of 26 games. So even though “home” is a relative term for this season’s Blue Jays, the schedule will soon start to give them an edge with fewer road games. One can only imagine how much the cheering fans will spur them on should they eventually get back to the Rogers’ Centre by season’s end.

As well, the roster is getting better, primarily because at last, the season’s big splash, George Springer is active after missing the first 22 games with injuries. Springer does seem to exude a positive energy within the team and is bound to start hitting some homers…and take some of the pressure of Vladimir Guerrero Jr to do everything by himself. Springer’s presence should have a ripple effect up and down the lineup for the better. Already Rowdy Tellez , a cryptic hitting talent off to a very slow start, has been demoted to the minors since Springer will take over at DH for the next few games and after that, presumably an outfielder like Lourdes Gurriel or Teoscar Hernandez will do that job. Oh yes, and last year’s home run basher, Hernandez, who’s only played seven games so far, is expected back within a few days from a Covid scare. Bottom line, a lineup with Springer and Hernandez is going to generate a lot more runs than one without. Good since Toronto’s .226 average is near the bottom of the league – but ahead of New York’s .216 – and their 94 runs is just 4.1 per game…not terrible but not the stuff of a World Series.

One might also add that Cavan Biggio and Gurriel are both young enough to be slightly unpredictable producers, but we know both are better than their .197 averages and 2 (Biggio) and 1 (Gurriel) home run thus far suggest. Both began to hit a bit better in the last week, so even if they don’t approach their 2020 numbers, we should see them on base more often.

The glass half-empty crowd might wonder how long the staff can keep up the AL’s second best ERA (3.35) but we could choose to see it as a deeper pool of pitchers than we had anticipated.

It all makes me wonder… is this the year Toronto should put the “pedal to the metal” and go all-out to win the World Series? For all the good they’ve shown so far, there are still definite areas which could be improved upon on this team. Despite a great opening day, neither Biggio nor Bo Bichette have played well defensively or seem to have arms capable of throwing across the infield. Beyond Hyun-jin Ryu and Steven Matz, the rotation is still questionable. Danny Jansen is OK behind the plate, but 2 for 44 with no RBI… and now he’s stopped wearing his glasses at the plate? It’s getting laughable… soon Charlie Montoyo should be asking umpires if his pitchers can hit and he can DH for his catcher. All these issues could be addressed… but not without giving up some talent and maybe taking on a lot of salary.

It might be the year to do so. I think three things suggest that. First, the competition isn’t all “that.” Few expect the Red Sox to keep playing over .600, Tampa’s pitching looks uncharacteristically weak, Baltimore are getting better but still below mediocre (but improving fast enough to make one think that a savvy free agent or two could make them respectible by next year) and the Yankees aren’t ruling the world. Even with a healthy Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, their .679 OPS is only ninth best in the league and they’re scoring fewer runs than Toronto. Plus, their two star pitching acquisitions of the winter, J. Taillon and Corey Kluber are looking like yesterday’s news – 1-4 combined over 9 starts, with Taillon allowing 4 HR in 17 innings and boasting an ERA over 6. On the hitting side, Jay Bruce has already given up and retired and Aaron Hicks is doing his Danny Jansen impersonation. Bottom line – yes, New York is almost bound to improve. But they are not necessarily bound to improve enough to run away with the division. The window of opportunity is open.

Second, the payroll allows. We know Toronto is a big market team (although stuck playing outside that big market this year and last) and has money. But we also know Rogers’ is cautious on going overboard on spending… and that the payroll won’t be this low again any time soon as bargain-basement earners like Guerrero and Bichette soon come eligible for arbitration and big league raises. Taking on for example a starting pitcher making $20M a year might be easy enough to swallow in 2021… but might not be by perhaps 2023 when suddenly there could be a whole lot more familiar faces in the $10M range in the dugout.

Third, and a bit gloomily, there may be no next year. At least not in MLB. We hope for the best, but understand that the union and owners agreement runs out after this season and negotiations will not be friendly. For evidence of that, consider that both the players and the owners favor having the universal DH. But that the players wouldn’t agree to it for this season because they didn’t want to cave in to owners, the way they see it. If they can’t agree on something they actually agree upon, how much co-operation will there be on the battle lines over things like changes to free agency, rule changes to the game itself or salary floors for low-spending teams. It’s not unrealistic to think that 2022’s season may be severely curtailed by a strike and/or lockout, and when play resumes it may be under a new set of conditions. If we can’t count on having a business-as-usual next season, maybe we should plan to win this year? Some food for thought, to go along with that half-full Toronto glass.

Two Brightest Lights In First Two Weeks

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of this year’s Blue Jays yet. As of right now, they’re sitting at an even .500, with numbers that make that seem about right – some good games, some disappointing ones, decent but not spectacular fielding (an improvement from last year that), pretty good bullpen, too many injuries and or illnesses disrupting the roster already. But two things have stood out so far that should give us fans reasons for optimism – Steven Matz and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. Fittingly they were the co-stars if you will of this aft’s 5-1 win over Kansas City.

Matz was always seen as a starter who had great potential with the Mets, but he never quite put that potential into action. So mediocre were his numbers in the last couple of years (0-5 with an absurd 9.68 ERA last year) that few even paid attention when the Jays acquired him on the cheap this past winter. While I still think Ross Atkins was woefully inadequate in bolstering the pitching staff for a playoff run, he does look pretty good on this one so far. Matz has made three starts and sits at 3-0 so far. He’s gone 6 or 6 1/3 in each, allowed a grand total of 9 hits, mainly softly hit and just one run each game. That equates to a 1.47 ERA, and if he keeps throwing sinkers that hit the bottom of the strike zone and pulling in ground balls left and right, that might not be such a mirage.

Which leads us to Vladdy. 14 games is not enough to really make a prognostication on, and a .429 average probably is a mirage… but those 14 games have been enough to show people that the Guerrero Toronto dreamed of a few years back has arrived.

I felt bad for young Vlad last year. He was playing reasonably well, but it seemed the main hobby among the Jays fanbase was jumping…off the bandwagon. There was no small amount of hostility expressed towards the then 21 year old. Sure, he wasn’t great at getting under pop-ups and yes, he wasn’t in anyone’s MVP discussion. But it was his first year playing first base and a .462 slugging percentage wasn’t anything to sneeze at. Neither though was it like his incredible minor league numbers which so many expected him to duplicate from Day 1 in the Majors.

Well, perhaps all the naysayers ended up doing everyone a favor. Vlad worked out hard in the off-season and shed 40 pounds without losing his happy on field demeanor. He’s looking much more fit and athletic this year, and lo and behold, the numbers are showing it. It doesn’t hurt that he’s hitting the ball in the air more this season – there are still a lot of hard hit grounders, but as we saw in KC with the high-flying bomb to left field, he’s getting enough airborne to be a power threat. The result – at present time, 21 for 49, a .429 batting average second in the AL, 21 hits ranking him third, a league leading .533 on base pct. (wrap your head around that… he’s been on base over half the times he comes to the plate!) and 1.268 OPS, putting him behind only the White Sox breakout star Yermin Mercedes, comeback story JD Martinez and a guy called Mike Trout. All that and a guy looking pretty good in the field. Yep, he’s come off the base a few times trying to reach a throw, but…isn’t that more on Biggio and Bichette throwing the ball five, six feet off the plate more than Vlad doing the splits?

So yes, a .429 average and being “on pace” for 48 homers and about 130 RBI might not hold up all year. But as Sarah Langs shows, with his hard hit rate, and his ability to lift the ball a bit more this year, what probably will is an All Star calibre Vladimir. It’s what we’ve been waiting for… and the best part is that he’s still just 22 and is still coming up to his 200th career game. That is reason to celebrate, .500 record or not, fellow Jays fans.

And Winner Is… 2021 Standings Predictions

Well with the 2021 regular season – destined to hopefully indeed be “regular” unlike last year – only days away now, it’s time to put forth my Fearless Predictions. And, the biggest surprise among them is perhaps that there are few surprises. Not many people seem to differ on their picks of the six likely division winners, or even terribly much on which teams will be Wild Card picks.

My picks , with win total out of 162 games

AL EAST

New York – 95

Toronto – 89

Tampa Bay- 85

Boston – 75

Baltimore – 63

AL CENTRAL

Chicago – 91

Minnesota – 88

Cleveland – 84

Kansas City- 76

Detroit – 67

AL WEST

Oakland – 87

Houston – 85

Seattle – 85

LA A – 78

Texas – 67

NL EAST

Atlanta – 94

New York – 90

Washington – 85

Miami – 82

Philadelphia- 80

NL CENTRAL

St. Louis – 85

Cincinnati – 81

Chicago – 79

Milwaukee – 77

Pittsburgh – 54

NL WEST

L.A. – 102

San Diego – 97

San Fran. – 76

Arizona – 68

Colorado – 64

AL PLAYOFFS

Toronto over Minnesota (wildcard)

Chicago over Oakland

New York over Toronto

New York over Chicago (ALCS)

NL PLAYOFFS

San Diego over New York (wildcard)

Atlanta over St. Louis

L.A. over San Diego

L.A. over Atlanta (NLCS)

WORLD SERIES

New York Y over L.A. D.

And a few addeds… team most likely other than those two to win World Series, Atlanta, then Toronto. Dark horse to make playoffs – Kansas City.

And one surprise prediction – 2021 All Star Game… have a cheesesteak, it’ll be at the Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Wait… doesn’t the schedule have it in Atlanta? Well, what’s a baseball season without a surprise or two!

A Blue Jays To-do List

As we enter the final few days of Spring Training, excitement is high for this year’s Blue Jays squad. So too are expectations. The team turned a corner last year, finishing with a winning record for the first time since 2016 and making the (expanded) playoffs. After an expensive off-season with a trio of major free agent signings – George Springer, Marcus Semien and the already-injured Kirby Yates – expectations are high as well. That in mind, I’ve compiled a list of reasonable goals for the main players in the Toronto lineup for 2021. If the majority of them can reach these, Toronto should be playing more than just two games this October.

Danny Jansen (C) – Hit .200. Not a lofty goal, but since he hit just .183 last year, would show an improvement. We know young Danny works hard on his defence, which is great for a guy with two year’s experience and an ever-changing array of pitchers to learn. We also know he can hit. He just needs to do it a wee bit regularly.

Alejandro Kirk (C) – Be on the roster at All Star Break. Kirk was a fan fave when he got called up last season, a rollie-poly young guy who can flat out hit. But he was a surprise addition to the Big League roster this year after only 9 MLB games and no AA or AAA minors experience. He can hit, if he can catch, he’ll stick to July and beyond.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr (1B) – Have at least .900 OPS. Sure that’s a great number, but given his minor league record and spring, not out of reach at all. Last year it was .791, if he lifts it to .900 it’ll mean we’re starting to see the guy the hype suggested we would, one getting on base a lot and hitting with some authority.

Rowdy Tellez (1B-DH) – Hit 25 homers. He’s never going to be a finesse infielder or a speedster, but Rowdy can crush the ball. Since he has 33 career HR in 553 AB, 25 is reasonable…if he stays in lineup. 25 will mean he’s doing well enough to be an essential in lineup more days than not.

Marcus Seminen (2B-SS) – Get at least 1 MVP vote. In 2019, he was third in AL voting for MVP…but also had career bests in games played, HR, RBI, OBP… Finishing that high in voting again might not be reasonable, but if he gets at least one vote, even a single 7th or 8th place ballot, it shows Toronto spent the money well to bring him in.

Bo Bichette (SS) – Collect at least 125 hits. Hey, Bo knows hitting. He’s hit over .300 in both his MLB seasons so far. But he also knows aches and pains and has missed a lot of time on the IL. If he gets to 125 hits, it means he’s playing at least fairly regularly…something Toronto will need to truly compete.

Cavan Biggio (3B-IF) – Steal 25 bases. It might be a bit of a lofty goal, but Cavan has excellent speed and judgment on the bases and has stolen 20 in 159 career games. If he can turn on the wheels a wee bit more it will help get the team using their good overall speed and relying less on the big, three-run blast to win games.

Lourdes Gurriel (OF) – Hit .309 or better. Gurriel often gets lost in the shuffle when discussing young talent in Toronto, but that shouldn’t be. He was a Gold Glove candidate in ’20 and hit .308, after hitting .281 and .277 in his previous years. Let’s go one better this year.

George Springer (OF) – Hit 40 HR or drive in 100 RBI. Either would be perfectly fine…and be career bests for the big-money guy. His current bests from his Houston era are 39 and 96. Toronto (and Dunedin, Buffalo) are more hitter-friendly stadiums and fans need evidence their $25M is being well-spent.

Teoscar Hernandez (OF) – Be in the top 5 in either OPS or HR. Last year he finished fifth in HR and seventh in OPS, and that was a drop-off after a late ribcage injury slowed him down. Getting back to the top 5 in either big category would show 2020 was no fluke and Teoscar is really quickly becoming one of the game’s elite.

Jonathan Davis (OF) – Be on the roster alongside Springer. Davis is apparently on the opening day roster, but that is in no small part due to a minor injury which will keep Springer sidelined for a few days. Davis has speed, a good glove, even a little pop in his bat. He needs to prove he should stick around at the Big League level.

Randal Grichuk (OF) – Play in 140 games. Grichuk had a good 2020 campaign but with the Springer signing seems a little redundant now. Just so-so performance and minore injurie have allowed him to be in that number of games only once in his 7 years so far, 151 in ’19. He needs to be good enough to be worth playing regularly.

Hyun Jin Ryu (P) – Be in top 5 in Cy Young voting. Not unrealistic as Ryu has finished third two years running, in ’19 in the NL and last year here with the Jays in the AL. Even if he doesn’t match (or better) that, being in the top 5 shows he’s doing what’s needed – being an excellent and consistant team ace to anchor the rotation.

Robbie Ray (P) – Limit walks to < 3 per 9 innings. Robbie has dynamic stuff, a great fastball and high strikeout rate. All that’s missing from an All star-calibre year is ability to hit strike zone consistently. Last year he led the sport in walks issued, about 8 per 9 innings. In ’17 the rate was 3.8, still high but decent. Fewer walks = good WAR = team wins.

Tanner Roark (P) – Justify your complaints about quick hook. Tanner got into a well-publicized dispute with the manager about being taken out too soon last year. He might have had a point, but a 6.80 ERA and negative WAR hardly merit confidence. Pitch well enough to deserve to be in the game in the 7th…then complain if you’re not.

Steven Matz (P) – Lower ERA to or below 3.96. Matz seems to be a southpaw with great potential but Mets gave up on him after 9.68 disaster in ’20 following mediocre 4.21 in 2019. In ’18 it was 3.97. If he can better that, he’ll be a positive addition to the Jays rotation.

Ross Stripling (P) – Make 20 starts. Stripling’s role is undefined right now and he’ll probably begin in the bullpen. But he can start, having begun 21 games for LA three years back. He’ll likely get a chance as a starter; if he can come remotely close to the 2018 3.02 ERA , he’ll stick there… and hence collect those starts.

Nate Pearson (P) – Pitch in October again. Although he’s only appeared in 5 regular season MLB games, he did get a few innings in the playoffs. A lot is expected of him. I’ll be happy if he isn’t overused early to cause him to be shutdown, and stays healthy enough to be able to get a few playoff innings again this year.

Tyler Chatwood (P) – Get at least 60 innings. Kind of like Stripling, a guy who could be a starter, could be a reliever and likely do both at times. 70% of his almost 200 big league games have been starts, but last year’s 5.30 ERA and .474 opponents slugging doesn’t make him a lock to do that. Being good in long relief would be a help

Rafael Dolis (P) – Pick up at least 6 saves. The big righty worked overseas for several seasons and was great with Toronto last year, picking up 5 saves (after four total before in his career) although not being the “closer”. He wasn’t destined to be that this year, but with Yates injured, he’ll have a shot. Six saves means he’s not blowing it.

Alex Manoah, Simon Woods-Richardson (P) – Dominate…at AAA. Two of the best young starting pitchers in the organization, both looked fine at spring training. But neither has any significant minor league experience, so let’s hope the year isn’t bad enough nor injuries prominent enough to merit calling them up yet. Seeing them on the mound for Jays this year means something went wrong.

Charlie Montoyo (Manager) – Win a post-season game. I thought of “have a pitcher go beyond 7 innings”, which didn’t happen last season, but why not aim higher. Becoming the second team skip, after Cito Gaston, to win a World Series would be great, but baby steps… first he has to at least win one playoff game!