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.