Wait, What? Whit?

When all is said and done, the Blue Jays had a pretty good run this year…although with just one more win… What might have been. Nevertheless, it was encouraging to hear club President Mark Shapiro speak of “getting better” next year and expecting to have a World Series contender, quite a breath of fresh air from what seems like has been the norm for most of this century, with the bosses talking about fans being patient and the team ” just a few years away”. And Shapiro is right – Toronto is a big market, with good resources (both monetary and in way of minor league talent) ample enough for making a championship-calibre team next year very realistic. It wouldn’t take too much beyond luck in the stars keeping healthy and just one or two additions.

Compared to many teams, the Blue Jays have few worries with departing players this winter. Most of the key players are either young and under club control (Guerrero, Bichette), or veterans signed on for many years (Ryu, Springer) . But the lurking problem is the free agency of Cy Young-candidate Robbie Ray and all-star second baseman Marcus Semien. Keeping those two around is going to take some fine talking from GM Ross Atkins…and a lot of cash. I’d love to have both return for 2022, but realistically, I think they should pull out all the stops to bring back Ray…and perhaps let Semien go with a heartfelt “thank you” and handshake. And here’s why:

The importance of starting pitching is obvious. And the Jays aren’t terribly deep in it. This year it was actually a strong point for them, but they did have the Gods smiling on them a little by way of having all their main starters remain healthy almost all season. That rarely happens. Right now, as it stands, the ’22 Jays have Hyun-jin Ryu, Jose Berrios and Alex Manoah penned in for the rotation. After that … question marks. Ross Stripling? Decent at times this year, but so-so in overall terms. Young Anthony Kay or Nate Pearson? Kay’s been ok in spotty MLB use so far, but is far from proven; Pearson throws hard but hasn’t yet shown he can put things together for more than an inning or two at a time, leading me to wonder if he might not be better cast in the role he had at season’s end, a flame-throwing middle reliever. Clearly, at least one (and preferably two) really good, front-of-the-line starters are a necessity to even maintain this year’s 91 wins, let alone rise above. Keeping Ray, and maybe Steven Matz as well, is of major importance.

Now, middle infield is also important, no question about that. But good middle infielders are more readily available than star pitchers. Admittedly, Marcus Semien was not only “good” but very good. Many expect him to finish third in AL MVP voting (behind Shohei Ohtani, and the Jays own Vladimir Guerrero Jr. ) He was an all-star and is bound to win the Silver Slugger. He shifted to second base from his usual shortstop seamlessly and played solid defense all year. He even set an all-time MLB record for the most home runs by a second baseman in a season. And he was one of only a handful of players in the sport to not miss a game. His .265 batting average wasn’t head-turning, but most of his other numbers were – 115 runs scored, 39 doubles, 45 HR, 102 RBI, .873 OPS (33% above average) and a WAR of 7.1. All the while mentoring young Bo Bichette who played beside him at short. Coaches say he was always among the first players to show up for practices. There isn’t a bad thing to say about Marcus Semien’s Blue Jays season. And that, believe it or not, is a problem.

Semien signed on last winter for a single season, $18M deal. Many thought that a bit outlandishly high. While he had a good reputation as a decent defensive infielder and a good team player, his whole case was really built on the great 2019 season he had with Oakland when he was a serious MVP candidate. Besides that year, his results were rather ordinary – in fact, his OPS had been below league average every other year he’d played. But he proved himself in the crazy Jays ’21 season, setting the homer mark, while learning to play a new position in three different home stadiums no less! He’s bound to be there with Corey Seager and Carlos Correa as the most in-demand free agent infielders this coming winter. He’s going to be paid more than $18M a year…and probably for a lot of years. At current market rates, he’ll deserve it too. But that wouldn’t fit Toronto well.

Let’s suggest he is getting offers close to what the Jays paid outfielder George Springer – 6 years at $25M a year, for $150M total. Paying him that much for ’22 might be realistic for Toronto, and he’d be a great asset. Problem is, as the contract would wear on, he (already in his 30s) likely won’t get better, but the team payroll will skyrocket as players like Vladdy, Bo and Alex Manoah become eligible for arbitration. The $1M a year kids will soon themselves possibly be in Semien/Springer money. By about 2024, having Semien locked in at that amount for several more years would be a burden for the team and limit their abilities to retain all the young stars. Plus, Toronto is quite fortunate in having a number of highly-rated middle infielders coming through the pipes – Orvelis Martinez, Kevin Smith (who came up for a “cup of tea” this September) and Jordan Groshans are all among their top 10 prospects and Groshans and Smith could be Majors-ready next year. All three are expected to contend for jobs by 2023, as is Miguel Hiraldo, another top 10 prospect. Obviously, before long, having Semien around might not be a luxury the Jays would find to their advantage. That said, I’d still offer him a good one-year contract for a very competitive amount because it would be great to have him back . But I fully expect he’d turn it down once five, six, maybe seven year offers started rolling in. So what to do? Well, I have an idea.

Whit Merrifield. The Kansas City star second baseman. Wait- what? I put the idea out there on Twitter and got some positive feedback, although people said “I hadn’t heard his name being mentioned before”. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be, or couldn’t be.

Although a slightly different player than Semien (less power, more speed) Merrifield is the rare type of player who could fill the hole very well for 2022. Like Semien, he played all 162 games this season. In fact, he’s not missed a game since 2018, and he only missed 4 that year. He hit .277 with 10 HR and 74 RBI, but led the league in stolen bases (40) and doubles (42.) It’s the third time he led in steals, and he’s led the AL in triples before too. He averages about 17 HR per 162 games, but playing in the East, one might imagine him popping 20 or more for the Jays. His WAR this year was 3.5 – not Semien’s match, but still a huge plus for a team – and his last four year average is about the same. Defensively, he’s a match for Semien (.988 fielding pct, 8 errors, 103 double plays turned compared to Semien’s .985, 8 errors, 86 DP) and he is fully at home in the outfield as well, if need be. But best of all, he’s only under contract for next year and at an entirely affordable $2.95M. There is a club option for ’23, with a cheap buyout if declined. In short, he’s an adequate replacement for Semien at $15-20M less and by the time one of the young studs like Groshans is ready to take over, he’d be off as a free agent. Which is also why I believe KC might trade him…after all they tossed off their “franchise” pitcher Danny Duffy this summer. Realistic heads in Royals-land probably must realize their team which finished 74-88, 19 games out and was outscored by over 100 runs despite a red-hot two-week start to the season, will have a huge uphill battle to really compete in ’22. Merrifield, if he performs up to his usual measure, would probably bolt before they become a team capable of repeating their 2015 championship. Obviously, they won’t give him away…he’s a two-time all-star and one of the league’s better infielders. But he’s not George Brett either. If the Jays were to offer, say Cavan Biggio (whose role is looking uncertain now after a step backwards in ’21 and with so many infielders coming through the Jays ranks) and a middle-level young pitcher like Kay or Trent Thornton, I’d bet we’d see Whit in a different blue-and-white uniform come March.

Consider it a free tip, Mr. Atkins.

End Of Regular Season, Beginning Of The Post

Well, to round out the 2021 Blue Jays coverage, we have my picks for the “team awards”. How good it is that unlike some years, the choices, while reasonably obvious, all had several good candidates. But in the end your 2021 Toronto Blue Jays

MVPVladimir Guerrero, Jr. Kind of obvious isn’t it. I mean, what didn’t Vlad do this year? (True, he didn’t win the Triple Crown… which means he didn’t do something that exactly one player out of the thousands to play this century has done.) 6.7 WAR, second to only Shohei Ohtani in the AL. .311 batting average, surprisingly tied for second-best among players with 400 or more at bats, behind only Yuli Gurriel of Houston (.319). .601 slugging percentage, .401 on base, both best in the AL, so therefore so too was his 1.002 OPS. 123 runs scored, best in league. 48 homers, tied for best in MLB and second-best in Jays team history. And our personal pick for “player of the game” 32 times through year, ten more than Marcus Semien. Wow. And he’s still just 22. Runner up : Marcus Semien

Best Pitcher Robbie Ray. 13-7, 2.84, 6.7 WAR. Led AL in innings pitched (193 1/3), and strikeouts (248) , tied for most starts (32) , dominant most of the time. 2.84 ERA third best among AL pitchers with 100 + innings (Carlos Rodon of Chicago had a 2.37 through 132 innings) and best among the few “qualified”- 162 or more innings – pitchers around. Also, Most Improved Player. From a disastrous 2-5, 6.62 overall last year to a strong Cy Young candidate this year. Lowered walks from about 8 every 9 innings to about 2.6 per 9 innings.

Runner-up for Pitcher – Steven Matz.

Rookie Of Year Alex Manoah. Called up after a grand total of just 35 innings of pro, minor league ball experience, went 9-2, 3.22 through 20 starts. Led AL rookie pitchers with 2.8 WAR and his 3.22 ERA, allowed just 77 hits over 111 innings, 127 K in those innings. If he’d come up about two weeks, three starts earlier, he’d be likely AL Rookie of Year. Runner Up – Santiago Espinal.

Bring on 2022! But first, there’s a little matter of the playoffs to attend to. I picked Boston over New York in AL Wildcard, but missed on last night’s NL one (to the relief of regular reader Badfinger!). Here’s my own personal look into the Post-season Crystal Ball full of tea leaves:

American:

Tampa over Boston in 5

Houston over Chicago in 4

Houston over Tampa in 6

National:

L.A. over San Francisco in 4

Milwaukee over Atlanta in 5

L.A. over Milwaukee in 5

World Series:

L.A. over Houston in 7. Payback for 2017 as it were. Bang on that garbage can, Astros.

If Vlad’s Not Satisfied…

Personally I’m not satisfied with anything…because the fact (is) that we didn’t make the playoffs. Which is obviously my personal goal.” So said a downtrodden Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Sunday evening after the Jays got eliminated from the chance of being in the post-season by way of late-inning wins from both Boston and New York on the final regular day of the schedule. The Blue Jays end up at 91-71, a good year, but one game shy of both the Yanks and Red Sox who end up playing on in the Wild Card game, winner to go against Tampa Bay.

It’s a tough one to take. The old baseball chestnut “it takes 90 wins to make the playoffs” was true in the National this year – the Cards squeaked in with precisely that – but the American League showed why its a “typically” not a “rule.” To be fair, other teams have met similar fates of late. Cleveland, back when they were still the Indians and still a good team, won 93 as recently as 2019 only to sit home in October. And Toronto’s had arguably worse missed opportunity years in the past. Most notably 1987, when they were in first place with a handy 3 ½ game lead over Detroit, sitting at 96-59. You know the rest. The team which had been a powerhouse lost seven in a row to end the year and finish 96-66, second place and outside looking in on the playoffs.

Arguably though, this year was worse. That year they controlled their own fate. They choked when they needed to play well. This year, they pretty much did what they could to succeed. They were the AL’s hottest team in September/October, going 22-9 a .709 winning clip. They entered the final weekend knowing (barring a total collapse by Boston and New York, which seemed improbable) they’d have to sweep Baltimore to have a chance. They did that, decisively, winning 6-4, 10-1 and 12-4. Guerrero homered in the first inning of the last game, his 48th big fly of the year, tying him for the MLB lead and putting him all alone in second on the team’s all-time best years list for that. But it wasn’t enough. They left the field Sunday afternoon only needing Washington to hold onto a comfy 5-1 lead over Boston, or Tampa to break a scoreless tie in the Bronx, to advance. Didn’t happen.

So, “there’s always next year”. And although months and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement away, 2022 does look bright for Toronto, who (fingers crossed!) will actually play all their home games in Toronto rather than three cities as was the case this season. Still, it smarts. As Steve Simmons in the Toronto Sun pointed out, this year seemed different. The Jays were getting hot at the right time and had a lineup which might have – just maybe – really had a shot at the World Series. They had a winning record against teams who also had winning records, something neither the playoff bound White Sox or Red Sox could say. Their 846 runs scored was third best in the league, their 663 allowed was fourth best. Their fielding was decent, whereas the Red Sox statistically were dead last in that across all of baseball. More importantly, what other team would want to face a lineup starting with George Springer, followed by Marcus Semien, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Teoscar Hernandez? A guy who’s made a career coming up big in October, who’s finally healthy after all sorts of ailments most of the season and hit two homers – one a grand slam – on the final day. An MVP candidate who just set an all-time record for most HR by a second baseman in a year. Not a Blue Jays record – an all-time record for Major League Baseball. An MVP candidate who led the league in home runs, runs scored and OPS…at the age of 22. A middle infielder with over 20 homers and 20 stolen bases. Then a 116 RBI guy. At the bottom of the lineup, a streaky catcher who posted an OPS over 1.000 in September. Couple that with most games being started by Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray, league leader in strikeouts and among the game’s best ERAs; Jose Berrios, second in innings pitched; and Alex Manoah, a rookie who came up mid-season and went 9-2 with an ERA of 3.22. That could have been formidable.

But it’s not to be, and the team…particularly manager Charlie Montoyo… understand, deep down, no one else is to blame. This is a team that could have easily rivaled Tampa’s 100 win tally. The opportunities were there and squandered. Remember May 14? Probably not, but Steven Matz might. He tossed five shutout innings against the Phillies, only to have Tim Mayza come in to face three batters. They all scored. Phillies win 5-1. Or May 20. Holding onto a lead against the rival Red Sox in the 9th, enter dubious reliever Rafael Dolis trying to collect a save. Four hits and three runs later, he didn’t get it, Nor did the Jays get the win. Or May 23. Hyun Jin Ryu is very good against Tampa through 7 innings, allowing just two runs. Enter the bullpen. They allow the Rays to get back in it, with long-gone and forgotten Travis Bergen pitching in the ninth, loading the bases then throwing three consecutive bases loaded walks! Tampa win, Tampa win. The very next day, Toronto leading again until the bullpen strikes. Tampa put 11 runs on the board in the 7th, something it took only Joel Payamps and Tim Mayza to allow. Or of course there was June 5 if you prefer, when Tyler Chatwood came in to face six batters. He gave up hits to five of them. They all scored. It was a frustratingly common pattern through the late spring. Looking back now, it’s obvious if even one of those games hadn’t gone astray, the Jays would be playing meaningful baseball, starting today.

Well, there’s always next year.

Number 4 Arm Is Number 1 Question For Jays

Managers and general managers in baseball get paid well to make tough decisions. And for the Blue Jays Charlie Montoyo and Ross Atkins, the tough decision they are facing now is if they make the post-season, who is in the starting rotation. The first three are pretty straight-forward : Cy Young candidate Robbie Ray, rookie phenom Alex Manoah and sturdy, inning-eating Jose Berrios. All three have been good to great of late. However, at some point in the playoffs, despite the off-days, there would be a need for a fourth starter should they last enough games. And that is where the problem comes in; the Toronto baseball Sophie’s Choice if you will. Do they go for Hyun Jin Ryu, or Steven Matz?

A couple of months back, this wouldn’t have been a question at all. In fact, the response would have probably been “Manoah or Berrios” once they acquired the latter from the Twins. After all, Ryu is the highest paid pitcher on the staff, and entered the season as the team’s certified “ace”. He finished third in Cy Young balloting last year, second the year before with L.A. He baffled batters time and time again with his soft fastball and array of off-speed pitches.

Now however, there is plenty of concern. On the surface, things haven’t changed for Hyun. His velocity is still about the same as ever, and he’s still hitting the edge of the strike zone reasonably well. What has changed though is the result. Frankly, he’s been horribly ineffective of late. While his overall numbers (13-10, 30 starts, 3.5:1 strikeouts to walks, 4.39 ERA) don’t seem bad this season, a closer look is worrying. His ERA has ballooned up from 3.22 on August 4 to the worst of his career, excepting his one-appearance year of 2016. Since the All Star Game, he’s made 13 starts. He’s lasted 65 1/3 innings, with a 5-5 personal record. At times he’s shone like his old self – seven inning shutout appearances vs. Texas on July 18 and Detroit on Aug. 21 for example. But in five of his last nine starts, he hasn’t made it to the fifth inning. And his ERA in those games since the mid-summer classic is a dreadful 5.65…hardly the stuff of a team ace. He says nothing is wrong physically, most of the time, although he complained of a sore neck and spent 10 days on the IL. He was activated last night and was dreadful in one of the most important games of the season, blowing and early lead to the Yankees in what ended up a 7-2 loss. Granted, the pathetic lack of hitting (3 hits total) wasn’t going to tip the odds in the Jays favor but it didn’t sit well to see such a highly-rated star all but throw the game away.

Which leaves Steven Matz. Matz, a cast-off from the Mets last winter has numbers not radically different than Ryu’s this year. A 1.8 WAR for him vs 1.6 on Ryu. Matz has made 28 starts, and sits at 13-7, with a 3.88 ERA…which is the best he’s had since 2016. Since the All Star break, he’s made 13 starts too. But he’s 6-3, and has lasted over 67 innings. More tellingly, his ERA in that timespan has been 2.95…about half what Ryu’s is. And that would be lower (2.49) if not for a rough outing against Baltimore in which he gave up 5 earned runs in 6 innings. But he picked up a win for that one, and given that the Jays scored 22 runs early in that one, it might be safe to say he wasn’t as worried about being precise as usual. Only twice since mid-July has a start of his not gone at least five innings.

Which leads to the tough decision – Ryu or Matz? Both are lefties. Both are having more or less similar-looking stats, only they are doing that by going in opposite directions. One improving, one getting worse. The numbers clearly favor Matz. But will Montoyo and Atkins?

It’s not as easy as one might think. Matz is a pending free agent. His season has resurrected his career and he’ll be attractive to a lot of teams this winter. Realistically, if the Jays can re-sign Robbie Ray (priority #1), they might not be able to afford to keep the new and improved Matz too. Ryu, on the other hand, is signed up for another two years at a fairly hefty $20M a year. It’s understandable that the team might want to avoid upsetting one of their highest profile players by sitting him down when it really matters. And it’s also easy to see armchair critics would be quick to pounce should Matz get a start ahead of Ryu and get knocked around. Some of it might come down to the opponent. Matz, for instance has struggled against the Red Sox this year, with the team losing two out of three of his starts, and him allowing ten ER in under 15 innings. Against the Yanks though, he’s been sharp, with the team winning both of his appearances and allowing only one run each time for a 1.46 ERA. Both have had some success against Tampa, but Matz hasn’t seen them since April.

The smart deal would probably be go with Matz, and have Ryu at the ready in the bullpen. But we’d need to hope Hyun’s ego is big enough to withstand that apparent demotion. It’s a problem for the team… but after last night’s game, it’s a problem we fans should feel very lucky to see play itself out. The Jays are going to need better pitching and more than three hits in each of the remaining five games to stand a chance of reaching that October question.

 

The Case For Guerrero

What Shohei Ohtani is doing in Anaheim with the Angels this year is impressive to say the very least. Special. Perhaps even once-in-a-lifetime. Some time ago, I acknowledged he was probably the American League MVP this year. After all, he’s a pitcher who’s pitching quite well …and then a designated hitter who’s knocking the ball out of the park when he’s not on the mound! That’s something to behold, something fun. But I’m here to perhaps play the Devil’s Advocate and say there might still be a strong case to be made that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is the real MVP, or at least could be. Of course, a lot depends on what happens in the final two weeks of the season, but if trends continue, it’s fair to say that Guerrero should be MVP. Consider:

Ohtani came over from Japan generally regarded as a pitcher who can also hit. Injuries have frustrated him and limited his mound time until this year. But in 2021, he’s made 22 starts, gone 123 innings with 146 Ks and limited opponents to a .208 batting average. He’s an impressive 9-2 with a solid 3.28 ERA. Not Cy Young numbers, but certainly very decent numbers. There’s likely not a team in the Majors who wouldn’t like to have him and those results in their starting rotation. But that’s only half the story of course. He’s also hit in 120 extra games, hitting .257, with an impressive .592 slugging percentage, courtesy 44 homers (and five triples thrown in for good measure.) He’s fast too… he’s stolen 23 bases (although he’s also been caught a league-worst nine times). Again, not eye-popping numbers for a DH, but good enough to make most AL teams desire his services. Put together, it equals a 8.1 WAR according to Baseball-reference.

Hard to top that, isn’t it? Yes…but Vladdy’s doing his best to try. Guerrero’s only missed one game all year and is sitting with a .321 average, .411 OBP, .617 slugging and 1.029 OPS. All those numbers lead the American League, as do his 46 home runs, 119 runs scored and 178 hits. And he has 81 walks to boot. No player with even 250 at bats is close to him in average or OPS. He has a chance to hit 50 homers, an outside chance of collecting 200 hits.  All the while, he’s playing a very competent first base… better than we expected to be truthful. And he’s really gunning it to the finish line, hitting .380 with a .718 slugging percentage and 7 HR so far this month after a bit of a down August. He’s already posted four three-hit games in September. That all equals a 6.8 WAR per the same reference.

So, Guerrero great, Ohtani greater? It’s still not that simple. Ohtani is excellent in two facets of the game, but Guerrero is dominating one.

Jason Giambi, Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Tejada, Alex Rodriguez X 3, Vladimir Guerrero Sr., Justin Morneau, Dustin Pedroia, Joe Mauer, Josh Hamilton, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera (twice), Mike Trout X3, Josh Donaldson, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts, Jose Abreu. Recognize that list? If you’re a fan, you should. It’s the list of previous American League MVPs this century, from 2000 to last year. Quite a motley, talented crew to be sure. What might not jump out at you is the one thing all of them except Mike Trout have in common. They were winners. Or more precisely, their teams were. Of the 21, only twice has a player from a team which had a losing record won – Mike Trout in 2016 (Angels 74-88, 4th place), and Mike Trout, 2019, (his team, 72-90, 4th place again.) Every other MVP has not only come from a team with a winning record, but one which made it into the Post-season. (That includes Trout in his first win, in 2014). In fact, only two out of the 19 of those didn’t win their division. That would be the ’07 Yankees (Alex Rodriguez) and ’08 Red Sox (Pedroia), both of whom finished second but scored a Wild Card placing.

Do you see the trend? It’s been an unwritten rule among the baseball voters since the age of the dinosaurs that the winning player must come from a winning team, a playoff-bound team. Their rationale is “how valuable can a player be if his team still sucks?” If you go through year-by-year, you can oft find players who actually posted better stats than the award winner …but played on a bad team.

It’s not a theory I necessarily subscribe to… to me, often the best teams don’t have one standout player, they win because they have 15 or so outstanding dudes, whereas a bottom-feeding team might accrue a large percentage of their few wins due to just one player – but it is the way it is in baseball. Or has been, all the time, until the league or writers decided Mike Trout was extra-special and they should make an exception for him.

I’m not saying that Guerrero definitely should be the MVP. But if Toronto can keep their recent momentum and hang onto the playoff spot they currently occupy (“if the season ended today”) and Guerrero keeps mashing the ball and leading the league in most hitting stats, he should be a valid option instead of Ohtani from his gone-fishin’-in-October Angels. To look at it any other way is to ignore baseball history and once again make a unique exception for the under-achieving Anaheim crew.

Trio Beginning To Rewrite Toronto Record Book

Blue Jays fans are seeing some history being made this year. Like yesterday, for example when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. went back to back with Marcus Semien with first inning home runs in the Bronx en route to an 8-0 routing of the Pinstripers. For Guerrero, it was his 40th homer of the season, adding his name to the elite list of ten Jays who’d done that before. (How many of those ten can you name? Answers at bottom. ) It’s unlikely he’ll topple Jose Bautista’s historic 54, but if he hits seven more in the remaining four weeks he will tie George Bell for the second-best Jays tally ever. And lest we forget, Bell won the MVP Award that year, 1987, for his 47 dingers and 134 RBI. What’s more, Guerrero and his dad have become only the second father-son duo to each have hit 40 or more home runs in one year during their career. Only Prince and Cecil Fielder had done so before…I would’ve thought the Bonds would have been on that list too!

Semien, who started yesterday’s scoring, then ended it with a decisive grand slam in the ninth, has 37 HR. That is the most-ever by a Blue Jays second baseman, edging past Aaron Hill and his 36 in the memorable 2009 season. That number – 37 – puts Semien into a 13th-place tie in MLB history in fact. The all-time record by a second baseman was Davey Johnstone with 43, back in 1973. It’s within reach, the way Marcus has heated up of late.

Then we have the easy-looking pitching dominance of Robbie Ray. Ok, we’ll admit, we have to cut Ross Atkins some slack for some of his seemingly dumb moves because of this one guy. Atkins took a chance on re-signing a guy in the off-season for $8M when that pitcher led the league in walks allowed last year and had a lofty ERA well on the wrong side of 6. Ray’s entirely turned it around this year, as we saw Sunday when he did most of the work on another 8-0 shutout, this over the A’s. It was a must-win series, and Toronto rose to the challenge, sweeping a team they’d been chasing for that final Wild Card slot. And Sunday was in no small part due to Ray, who lowered his ERA to an All Star-like 2.60 and took over the AL lead in strikeouts with 212. That number puts him fourth on the team’s all-time list for best seasons already, and with five starts potentially left, he has a great shot of topping AJ Burnett’s 231 recorded in 2008, although the top two tallies, both by Roger Clemens, will probably stand.

These are historically-impressive seasons. If Guerrero keeps at his current numbers (and after an August slump, he’s been hot this last week) his 1.014 OPS will be among the five best in the team’s 44 years. Semien has an outside shot of tying Aaron Hill’s RBI record for a second baseman, 108. Robbie Ray’s already clicked up a WAR of 6.8, less than one below Dave Stieb’s 1983 number which was the 10th best-ever for a Jays pitcher. If he pitches remotely close to how he has since the All Star break down the stretch, his number this year will likely rank him among the four or five best single seasons by a Toronto pitcher. Semien’s WAR is 6.1; Guerrero’s 5.7 (likely the reason Semien’s number is higher is because he’s playing a more demanding position than Guerrero and there are fewer great 2B than 1B around.) Jose Bautista has the all-time Toronto record (among position players), with 8.3 in 2011. Both Marcus and Vladdy will probably be close, though not above, that number by the end of the 162 game sched.

Great seasons. Historic even. Enjoy them Toronto fans. But… if they don’t push the Jays into the post-season, it will not amount to much. Think about it. Add up just those three players WARS and you get 18.6 so far… that’s 18 wins above replacement! 18 wins better than an average team! That would, in theory, leave Toronto with 99 wins this season, even if the entire rest of the team were just average. And we know that guys like Teoscar Hernandez, Bo Bichette and Hyun-jin Ryu are better than run-of-the-mill. Toronto won’t win 99 this season… but if they don’t win enough to make the wild card game at least, they should be looking in the mirror and asking themselves why that is.

(Answer: the 10 Jays to hit 40 or more HR in a season before Vladimir : Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Jose Cruz Jr., Jose Canseco, Tony Batista, Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson. I had to really think for awhile to come up with Cruz… and wasn’t entirely sure if Donaldson had hit that mark in his MVP year.)

Toronto’s Anonymous Superstar

Here are two players’ stats for their past 162 games (which needless to say is the length of one full, regular season):

PA

AB

Runs

Hits

2b

3b

HR

RBI

BB

Bat.Avg

OBP

SLG

OPs

 

671

621

102

191

31

1

41

127

44

307

350

659

1009

Player1

727

566

135

169

28

4

52

123

132

298

411

637

1048

Player2

Both pretty amazing lines for “one season” aren’t they? If you were a GM, which one would you choose?

Probably Player 2, since he has hit more home runs, and takes a lot more walks than Player 1. But Player 1 is attractive. He does have, after all, more RBI, a better batting average and better slugging percentage. Both are well above league averages in all those (excepting Player 1’s walk tally.) Now… what if you were told Player 2 would cost you about nine times as much as Player 1? that might reframe your point of view, mightn’t it? And if you learned Player 2’s 162 games go back a full three months further into 2019, due to much more frequent injuries?

So, those two sets of stats were for real players and their last 162 games up to yesterday evening. Player 2 is none other than Mike Trout. A guy many critics tell us is without question the Best Player Playing, and some go as far as to call the GOAT… Greatest of All-time. Player 1? That would be Teoscar Hernandez, of the Blue Jays. Not exactly a household name…even in Toronto, alas. So congratulations to Teoscar on being AL Player of the Week last week. A big, and under-rated part of the equation when people talk about the Jays rise to contention and their outstanding hitting.

By the way, Vladimir Guerrero’s last 162 games yield this line: 699 PA, 631 AB, 120 runs, 180 hits, 29 doubles, 3 triples, 43 HR, 117 RBI, .285 avg, .374 OBP, .548 slugging and .921 OPS. Pretty impressive… but judging from what he’s done this year, only a glimmer of what we might look forward to in the next 162!

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.