73 – 89 (.451) 35 games behind, 4th place
After a surprisingly decent start to the year (15-10 in April for example), the wheels fell off early on. The arrest of closer Roberto Osuna in early-May, whether coincidentally or not, seemed to signal the start of a steady descent for the Jays through May and they never climbed back to .500 or out of 4th place for the remainder of the year. The 73 wins is the lowest since 2012’s which it tied; no surprise then the great league-leading attendance dropped to 2.3 million (also lowest since 2012) and no longer led anything.
For Toronto, a familiar refrain – if only the city was a little further west! The Jays had the misfortune to be in the best division in the league and although they handled the orioles easily (who didn’t?), they went 10-28 against the powerhouse Yanks and Red Sox. Throw in the bugaboo Tampa Bay Rays, with whom they fared no better (6-13) and you have a lot season. Were that they only were in the Central, with whom they battled to an 18-15 record, for instance. Despite the fact that they were clearly outmatched against the elite teams, especially NY and Boston, they did show some signs of an admirable feistiness. They had 9 walk-off wins but only let opponents do that 3 times; they matched the Yankees 23-17 record in tight 1-run games, indicative of the quite good bullpen that was one of the highlights for them.
Player of the Year : Justin Smoak
the bar was set so low that Peter Dinklage couldn’t limbo under it. That said, even though he didn’t match last year’s numbers, Smoak was a solid, steady presence at the plate and with overlooked solid “D” at first base. When all was said and done, his unremarkable 67 runs and 83 RBI led the roster and the 25 homers tied him with Randal Grichuk. Thanks to his good eye at the plate, he also led the team in walks and on base percentage (.350.) With a team option for an affordable $7M or so next year, he should be back to add some maturity to the lineup.
Pitcher of the Year: Tyler Clippard
An argument could be made that the pitcher of the year could be JA Happ…of the New York Yankees. After all, Happ’s 10 wins led the team and he was the sole All Star. But we’ll give a nod to the lanky veteran reliever who was a constant in the beleaguered bullpen, leading the team with 73 appearances 68+ innings (tops among the relievers) and 7 saves. He gave up too many homers but had the go-to pitches to notch 85 strikeouts. Not a superstar campaign, but indicatve of an overused bullpen that actually blew fewer saves than Houston or the Dodgers’ – quite an achievement on a team with a 4.85 ERA. That bested only Texas, KC and Baltimore, three teams with far worse records.
Rookie of the Year: Ryan Borucki
it was a toss-up between him and infielder Lourdes Gurriel, but we’ll got with MLB’s own assessment and pick the starting pitcher. After all, the big knock on Ryan would be that he only played in the bigs in the second half. True enough, but due to injuries and a demotion early on to the minors, Gurriel himself only played in 65 games. Although his won-loss was only 4-6, the slow-tossing, finesse lefty was great more times than bad in his 17 starts and had a respectable 3.87 ERA… best among the team’s regular starters. Part of his success lay in keeping the ball down… while hitters weren’t always fooled by him, they notched only 7 home runs in about 100 innings against him. The guy who fashions himself after Mark Buehrle could end up being close to that man if he continues to study the art and stays healthy.
Story of the Year : Out with the old, in with the new
By August it was very clear the 2015-16, post-season making, exciting Jays were a thing of the past. The standouts from that era were either gone (Bautista, Encarnacion, late in the month, Donaldson) or more or primarily irrelevant (Tulowitzki, Martin) when it comes to position players or deadweight when it comes to pitchers (the trio of Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez that was supposed to anchor a star-qulaity rotation combined to go 15 – 29 through only 67 starts. Their combined 144 walks allowed contributed to their combined ERA of 5.10. Not pretty for one supposed established star and two supposed superstars on the way up.) That considered, it is no surprise that the old manager, John Gibbons isn’t going to be back for another kick at the can, even though the team ended his tenure with much more class than the Rangers did their manager (basically emptying his locker out with a week left in the season.)
However, the old saying “You can’t tell the players without a program” soon came to be near to the truth. A large contingent of young, up-and-coming players were wearing the blue-and-white in September, giving a glimpse of what could be a very good team in the not too distant future. Besides the aforementioned Gurriel and Borucki, a pair of rookie catchers (Danny Jansen, Reese McGuire), young outfielder Billy McKinney, career minor-league infielder Jon Berti and pitchers like Thomas Pannone, Justin Shafer and David Paulino all made themselves at home at Rogers’ Centre while “oldies” like Russell Martin and Yangervis Solarte largely made sure the bench didn’t float off should gravity cease to work. Noteworthy though was the absence of the real stars-to-be from the Jays minors’ – Vladimir Guerrero Jr and Bo Bichette. which gives us another reason to be excited about 2019!
…and the playoffs….
Last column I gave you some predictions for this year’s post-season. So far, I’m looking smarter than I am, since most things seem to be working like I thought they would even if New York did do what they should and had to, namely beat the A’s in a one-game showdown. I’ll stand by those predictions (apologies to Dodgers’ fan friends) and say the world series will go to…
they should take out the cheeseheads in no more than 6 games. I’d like to see Milwaukee win but the Red Sox are a powerhouse, looked like they are motivated based on the first game against the Yankees, and will have home field advantage. They went an impressive 57-24 at Fenway. They also won 16 of 20 interleague games. The Brewers on the other hand, were a respectable but far from overwhelming 45-37 on the road and 13-7 interleague. And, yes, even if LA should make it to the series, I still see the Sox prevailing. Kershaw when he’s on is as good as any pitcher in the game but the Sox collection of Sale/Price/Porcello is tough to top.
Team Record: 12 – 16 (.429)
4th place all month
Player Of The Month – Randal Grichuk
The bar wasn’t set all that high but Grichuk delivered, as he did in June. Randal’s batting average didn’t budge during the final months but his 8 double, 6 homer performance meant a .553 slugging percentage. Coupled with ongoing solid OF defense, that merits a tip of the cap. Grichuk is showing himself to be a tremendously streaky player. If Toronto can find a way to keep him hot longer, he might become the star they had hoped he would be.
Pitcher Of The Month – Ken Giles
Second month in a row for the newcomer who says he’s enjoying his time here more than he did last year when he won a World Series in Houston. Giles was close to perfect in his 9 appearances this past month, going 7 for 7 in save opportunities and not allowing an earned run. An honorable mention to rookie Thomas Pannone who was 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA through 6 games (4 of them starts.)
Story Of The Month – Win One For The Gibby
No one was surprised but it was made official during the last week of the season that manager John Gibbons was departing the team after the season wrapped up. Gibbons earned the respect of his players, and the fans by being a “player’s manager” and being a far more approachable, chatty manager than the theoretically-more-talented John Farrell whom he replaced. Gibbons leaves as the second winningest Jays manager ever, behind only Cito Gaston (with whom the team won 2 World Series, of course.) Gibby and the organization found a classy way to end his tenure, with a joint news conference before the final home game, allowing Toronto fans to show their appreciation.
Next up, later this week we look at the whole year in summary and perhaps the playoff outlook. In the meantime, a few quickie predictions for the post-season:
NL— wild card Colorado
NLDS – LA over Atlanta, Milwaukee over Colorado
NLCS – Milwaukee … who woulda thunk it?
AL– wild card Oakland … yes, NY should win easily. But those A’s are just surprising
ALDS – Boston over Oakland, Houston over Cleveland
ALCS — Boston
World series… to be continued!
As the long and ultimately disappointing Jays season draws closer to its end, presenting Toronto fans with their second-straight losing year, there should be reason for optimism nonetheless. Positives can be seen on the field these days, as well as to the east in New England and to the south in Buffalo …and Atlanta?
While there’s a litany of things that have gone wrong with the Blue Jays this season – oft-injured veterans (Donaldson, Tulowitzki), failure of the core of the starting rotation (Stroman, Estrada, Sanchez) to pitch like major leaguers, let alone their former star selves, sloppy fielding at times – there are a number of bright spots. Primarily, the youth of the organization. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. is developing into a very good hitting young infielder and while Teoscar Hernandez hasn’t hit like many expected, it’s worth remembering it is his first full season at the big league level (although it’s also fair to point out that with him turning 26 in a few short weeks, he’s no longer in the category of “spring chicken.”). More recently, young pitchers Ryan Borucki , Thomas Pannone and Sean Reid-Foley have had flashes of brilliance on the mound, and while both have been a bit inconsistent, one can hope they will mature and adapt quickly. If even one of them takes a big step ahead next year and another merely repeats his ’18 production, the pitching next year should look more reliable than this year (currently Toronto starters rank 28th of 30 in MLB based on ERA). As it is, the trio are already showing better than their older veteran colleagues in the rotation anyway.
Danny Jansen is looking perfectly at home ascending to his role as “catcher of the future”. He was called up after a solid campaign at AAA in which he hit .275 with 58 RBI and a .390 on base percentage in 88 games. Scouts have pointed to his “impressive strides” in catching abilities this year although noting his throwing arm might never be more than average.
New Hampshire, the Jays’ AA afiliate just won their league championship, in no small part due to Minor League All Star Bo Bichette, ranked as the 9th best prospect in all of baseball. Bichette will turn 21 just before opening day next spring, and according to scouts shows “good range and instincts” in the infield and has “no limit to his offensive ceiling.” This year, he hit .286 with 74 RBI and good speed leading to 43 doubles and 32 stolen bases.
And of course, that pales beside baseball’s top overall prospect, and his teammate for the first half of the season, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Even with a tiny drop off in production at Buffalo, Guerrero managed to win the “Pipeline Minor League Player of the Year” award as the best hitter in all the minors, with head-turning .381 average and .636 slugging percentages in 95 games. While scouts note that he’s not as great defensively (with “below average speed and range” playing third, but a strong “above average arm” which helps make up for the other) he still is deemed ready to take on big league competition by almost everybody except Jays management. Guerrero, is to remind you, still just 19 years old.
All this suggests that there is no reason for this year’s foirth-place, sub-.500 season to be a real worry nor a precedent for the 2019 season. In short, Toronto could and should compete next year.
Is such a jump realistic over the winter? Yes. Minnesota went from a last place 59 wins in 2016 to a wild-card earning 85 wins in 2017 without any huge roster overhaul. More impressive, this year’s Atlanta Braves have all but locked up their first division championship since 2013, after winning just 72 last year. Right now they’ve already won 11 more than that and they’re on pace to win 91 and have the second best record in the NL. And they’ve done that with no huge superstar additions… unless you count the addition of two of the best youngsters in the game.
The Braves are thriving this year with 21 year old second baseman Ozzie Albies in his first full year. After a mid-season callup in 2017,he’s solidified into one of the best two-way middle infielders around this year, with a .273 average, 22 homers and 39 doubles among his impressive numbers.
Even more eye-catching has been their rookie outfielder, Ronald Acuna Jr. The 20 year old who a year ago was in more or less the same spot as Guerrero Jr. is now, is a leading candidate for rookie of the year, with a constantly-rising .296 average, 26 homers and 14 steals so far in under 100 games. The pair have added some real depth to the lineup that relied too much on the bat of Freddie Freeman alone the past couple of years, and has brought excitement to the stands– and soldified the teams spirit, one might guess judging from their response when a Marlins pitcher chose to start the game by plunking him with a pitch. Throw in good, but not extraordinary, comebacks from veteran Nick Markakis and pitchers Mike Foltynewicz and Julio Teheran, and you have a team looking to play for the World series this fall- not sit at home. That should be the role model for Toronto.
It’s reasonable for the Jays not to want to be in on bidding potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents Manny Machado or Bryce Harper this winter. They don’t need to in order to compete and give the fanbase of one of baseball’s biggest and most loyal markets a chance to celebrate next year. Even increasing payroll is likely unnecessary, what with Josh Donaldson off the roster and payroll. That frees up some $23 million a year, which certainly will allow for a few smart , mid-range free agents (particularly a starting pitcher or two to replace departed JA Happ and under-achieving Marco Estrada) to be signed. Add a few trades to perhaps clear out the over-crowded middle infield (I would think both Devon Travis and Yangervis Solarte would draw interest and are entirely expendable given the presence of A. Diaz, the emergence of Gurriel as a real talent, Troy Tulowitizki still under contract and aiming to return next year, newly-acquired Brandon Drury and of course, the expectations of both Bichette and Guerrero at the big league level in ’19). To say that it’s impossible to compete in the division because of New York and Boston , or that it’s going to be another “5 year plan” as JP Ricciardi used to preach in the early part of this century, is disingenuous and insulting to the team and its fans. Yet that seems to be the suggestion of big boss Mark Shapiro and GM Ross Atkins, with the former directly suggesting to the Toronto Star that 2021 is the earliest fans should expect a winning team. If that is the way they truly feel, perhaps they should move along- back to their beloved Cleveland , or over to the Mets who’ve been rumored to want Shapiro at least – and let the Jays be run by people with confidence and imagination. Rather like the Braves organization- run by Atkins’ predecessor, Alex Anthopoulos.
Team Record – 13 – 15 (.464)
4th place in AL East all month
A lacklustre month, with a record that looks better than it was perhaps given that there were 10 games against the worst pair of team’s in the game, Baltimore and Kansas City. The month ended with one-time MVP Josh Donaldson traded to Cleveland and classy outfielder Curtis Granderson off to Milwaukee.
Player of the Month- Kendrys Morales
Morales brought a little excitment to the city by hitting homers in 7 straight-games, best in Jays history and only a game off the whole MLB record. On the month, he hit 9 HR and had a pretty admirable .563 slugging percentage. Not a new version of 1992 Dave Winfield or ’93 Paul Molitor, but still a major league hitter and in a league without an Ortiz, one of the better DHs around. Honorable mention to the surprising but up-and-down Randal Grichuk who hit .317.
Pitcher of the Month – Ken Giles
His teammates didn’t set the bar very high. Toronto was giving up over 5 and a half runs a game, and opponents racked their scores up into double digits 6 times in the month. Newcomer Ken Giles in his first month with the team, never made it look easy…in 11 innings he gave up 4 homers and opponents hit .313 off him… and Yahoo sports writers even suggested he might be trying to help Philadelphia win against his own team. All that said, he was 7 for 7 in save opportunities for the Jays, and added a precarious but real stability to the back of the ‘pen. No matter how we try to spin it, there were simply no good starting pitchers for the team when viewed across the month.
And By the Way –
In case you’re wondering about some ex-Jays… since being traded, Steve Pearce is doing just fine in Boston as a backup first baseman and outfielder. He’s hitting .278 with 6 homers and a (career best) .394 OBP in 33 games with the Sox. All Star JA Happ has been all-star calibre with the Yanks… in 6 starts, he’s 5-0 over 34 innings (an average of 5 2/3 innings per game , same as with toronto earlier) and a pretty respectible 3.38 ERA. He’s certainly helping NY keep in the race, albeit a longshot, to win the division.
Seungwhan Oh has been very good in the mile high city, having a stellar 1.32 ERA and one win, one save in 15 relief appearances with the Rockies. John Axford , with LA Dodgers, and Aaron Loup with Philly each are on the disabled list now and did little in their new unis so far.
Story of the Month – Trailer of Upcoming Attractions
We got to see the catcher-of-the-future, Danny Jansen who’s looking very at home at the plate and behind it, outfielder Billy McKinney who seems better than Yankees scouts suggested when he was traded for Happ, and southpaw starter Thomas Pannone, who was brilliant against Baltimore , flirting with a no hitter, in his first start then was hit hard by the same team 6 days later. None look like All Stars yet, but all show potential for a great future, and when added in to the likes of Guerrero Jr, Bichette and Tellez perhaps point towards a great team on the horizon.
Mark March 28, 2019 on your Blue Jays calendars. That is the date when we should see Vladimir Guerrero Jr. play his first game with Toronto. March 28 is the rather early opening day next season and that’s when it would be in the team’s best interests to bring him up to the majors. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be.
Considering the red-hot year Vlad’s had in the minors and the lacklustre year of 2018 for the Blue Jays, there’s certainly reason for fans to perhaps want, even expect, him to be called up for September when rosters can expand to 40 from 25. After all, it would be something for them to be excited about and a guy who’s hitting .390 with 70 RBI in 85 games in the minors would likely be an upgrade over the likes of Randal Grichuk or Guerrero’s fellow rookie, Billy McKinney at the plate at least. I hope the team resists the temptation to do so.
At this point you might be thinking me curiously inconsistent. After all, did I not in my last column suggest that the team should try to trade for Jose Bautista exclusively for the fans who’d like to see him in the blue-and-white one more time, even if it didn’t add a single “W” to the standings?
I did indeed, but there is a world of difference. Bautista is an aging player who is likely playing out his final MLB season and it seems appropriate for him to end a lofty career in the uniform he had all his real success in. The risk to Toronto is very minimal since the team isn’t going to the post-season and it won’t effect Jose’s future much one way or another. Vladimir, on the other hand is an entirely different story and bringing him up just to show him off for Rogers’ Centre fans for a few at bats could harm him and the longterm success of the team. Here’s why.
First, and significantly is the highly unlikely possibility that he’d injure himself badly playing in September. Yes, any player faces that risk every time they take the field and I don’t see it being a reason to keep a regular roster player out . If the Jays were say, Seattle, hovering on the verge of a playoff spot, I’d say it would be well worth the risk. Those extra few hits he could produce might just be the game changers for a game or two that would lift the team into the post-season. But such is not the case. Likely he’d do just fine through 15 or 20 games and get his feet wet, so to speak. But does anyone really think it would be worth it should he somehow break his leg running or pull a Justin Morneau and get kneed in the head sliding into base and never quite being the same afterwards?
Second, and the real reason Toronto will likely resist the temptation, is financial. The sooner he arrives in the majors, the sooner the countdown to his potential free agency begins. Sure, it’s 6 years away, but why hasten its arrival? What’s more, it would also speed up his ability to get to salary arbitration, which could happen after two full seasons. Adding a few games now might make him arbitration-eligible a year earlier than otherwise, and cost the team millions of dollars down the road. (The complicated arbitration process clause about ‘Super Twos’, in which some talented players can file for it a year sooner than most is why Toronto might not bring him up to start 2019, wins and losses be damned.)
Third, let’s not make the young man’s head explode, or fill it with bad advice. I’m all for learning from many people, but let’s remember he is still a teenager. He’s taken advice and heard differing opinions from managers and coaches at New Hampshire and Buffalo already this year. I worry that having him take a new set of instructions in the Toronto clubhouse might be detrimental… largely because the current staff seems to do little to really enhance the performance of young hitters. Not to mention, as discussed here and elsewhere, John Gibbons seems destined to be replaced as manager in the off-season. One would expect/hope that if that happens, the dominoes will fall, starting with his ineffective hitting coach, Brook Jacoby. (Again, I add that I have nothing against Mr. Jacoby the man, and that he was a fine player in his day. But he seems unable to do anything to improve the hitters he’s surrounded by these days.) So why have Vlad come up and learn the philosophies and strategies about hitting and baserunning from a coaching staff that will probably not be around in 2019? Any bad habits he picks up in September will just mean more work for the new staff to correct…and looking at the roster, they’ll probably have their hands full next spring!
As a fan, I’m excited about the prospect of having such a great young talent playing for the Jays. But I can wait til next year. Take the advice of MLB’s own website, Jays, – promote Anthony Alford in a few days and let Guerrero get a start on dreaming about next season.
Tonight’s Blue Jays game in Kansas City will be watched closely and with anticipation by fans, which is something we’ve not said for awhile now. The reason is highly-touted pitching prospect Sean Reid-Foley being listed as the scheduled starter, thereby making it his MLB debut. Add to that the fact that in all likelihood, behind the plate will be his normal catcher of late, Danny Jansen, who was called up yesterday and is expected to make his debut as well.
It will be good to see a glimpse of the team’s future… but it doesn’t hide the fact that this is one lacklustre season which is trying the patience of even diehard fans. It doesn’t put enough smoke out to screen the fact that there’s a noose dangling over manager John Gibbons’ career either. Widely respected baseball reporter Ken Rosenthal started a rumor last week that Toronto was about to fire Gibby, Toronto media picked up on the story and it grew and a few days back, Gibbons suggested that he was OK with staying or going and that he wasn’t sure he wanted to be around if the team was going to have a “total rebuild.” That gave the story more legs, even with Gibbons under contract to Toronto through next season.
It would be a bit of a shame to see Gibbons go. He seems affable in his own odd way, has been much better with the media than his predecessor John Farrell and ranks second on the Jays all-time list for games and wins among managers. Curiously he trails only another San Antonio, TX native who also had two go arounds as manager- Cito Gaston. Currently Gibbons sits at 1537 regualar season games managed, with just over half (773) being wins. Gaston has 1731 and 894 respectively meaning Gibbons would surpass Cito for longevity sometime next year if he stays on and, we’d hope in wins as well. The latter however would be a longshot given the trajectory of the club in the last couple of years.
Which leads us to my point. I like Gibby but maybe it is time for him to go. He seems to be having trouble motivating the team lately and they sure aren’t putting up W’s or even exciting the diminishing crowds in the stadium. However, if he goes, Rogers’ should see to it that joining him on the path to the Exit are GM Ross Atkins and Big Poohbah Mark Shapiro. Since that pair crossed the border from Cleveland after the 2015 season, they’ve quickly driven the team steadily downwards on the field and in the public’s eye. Continue reading
Team Record – 11 – 15 (.424)
another somewhat dismal month with many on the crew looking like they’d lost heart and interest by the return from the All Star break as losses pile up and the Red Sox put on the hyperdrive to seemingly run away from the pack, including the Yankees, second best in baseball but some 5 games out in the division. The Jays languish in 4th, some 14.5 games behind the wild card teams. Three game sweep of Orioles post-All Star break was a minor highlight; Jays have owned the orange-birds this year winning 9 of 10.
Player of the Month – Lourdes Gurriel Jr.
we’re starting to see why the Jays were so eager to get this guy out of Cuba and sign him to a surprisingly large long-term contract a couple of years back. Looking more confident by the day, he showed hustle, versatility and did something no one had done in baseball since Tony Perez back in ’73- put together an 11-game streak of multi-hit games! He raised his average by over 100 points to .322, some 60 points higher than the next top hitter on the roster with over 100 at bats (which would be Kendrys Morales, believe it or not.) On the month, Gurriel had 30 hits in just 17 games,hitting .423 with 4 doubles, 4 homers adding up to a .648 slugging percentage! Unfortunately he hurt his knee on Monday and will miss most, if not all of August.
Pitcher of the Month – Ryan Borucki
it could be seen as an indictment of the many veterans on the Jays that the player and pitcher that really stood out in July were both rookies. But we’ll take it as a message of hope of better years to come! Toronto’s pitching was quite bad this past month – 142 runs allowed over the 26 games, with the opponents putting 8 or more on the board 7 times. So this kid, compared already to a skinnier Mark Buehrle was a breath of fresh air in his 5 starts, even though he still hasn’t picked up a big league win! He started 5, went 29 innings, throwing an average of 95 pitches per game. He had a 2.79 ERA in the month, but if you throw out a single bad start against the red-hot Red Sox, he was averaging nearly 7 innings a start, had 20 Ks to only 3 walks allowed and an ERA well under 2. Even though his opponents are hitting a rather solid .279 against him, his ability to keep the ball on the ground (no homers allowed thus far) is doing what matters- keeping them off the board.
Story of the Month – The trades
Expected but still disappointing, with the team well and truly out of contention, management jettisoned a lot of salary and talent, particularly when it comes to pitchers – the team’s best pitcher of the year so far, JA Happ going to the Yanks, with Canadian-born reliever John Axford off to LA, long-serving Aaron Loup over to Philly and Seung Hwan Oh sent to Colorado. For the most part, the return on them was not very inspiring, but who knows- more than one star have been developed from low-prospect minor leaguers picked up via trade. The one different breed of cat – or trade- was the surprising trade of one time superstar-in-the-making Roberto Osuna to Houston for their erstwhile closer Ken Giles and two minor league pitchers. This had everything to do with Osuna’s arrest and subsequent suspension and a realization fans wouldn’t take warmly to him … as apparently, Justin Verlander in Houston isn’t either. Most fans I’ve heard from approve of this one.
More and more baseball’s “age of parity” seems to be over. It already seems hard to believe not long ago we talked about that and how some found it boring that almost every team was in contention well into the season and there were no runaway trains on the track to Ocotber. No more. Witness the AL East, where the Yankees are on pace to win 103… and potentially finish a double digit number of games behind Boston if they do. And at the other end of the spectrum, mere miles down the highway but light years away in talent, the Orioles are within days of being mathematically eliminated and have nothing more to play for it would seem than to avoid the worst numbers in that club’s history. Baseball is now becoming divided as the Congress, and the halves are Winners and Losers. Right now it’s not that encouraging for Toronto fans to think which side of the divide the Blue Jays are going to. ((Although we will temper that with the realization that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is on the cover of the latest Baseball America as the best prospect in the game.))
The trade this week of JA Happ does nothing to reverse that trend. I’ve said here that I thought Toronto should hang onto him , if possible, and try to sign a contract extension, but that clearly wasn’t in the cards. In fact, Happ was the most talked about pitcher in the game coming up to next week’s trade deadline, and Toronto were anxious to cash in. There are obviously better pitchers in the game- MAx Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale are among the ones who quickly come to mind – but none of them are on the verge of free agency… or on teams who acknowledge they are losing. (Aka, teams going to play in October like Houston, LA and boston, or teams who have no hope but haven’t given up pretending, like Washington.) Happ was the most coveted arm out there for a contender to potentially add and he was rumored to be wanted by Philadelphia, the Cubs and New York if not more teams. Of course, the Yankees prevailed and Toronto shipped him off , with a nice little “Thank you JA” tweet to go.
It’s not the fact that they traded him – the most reliable pitcher on our staff- that irks me. It is, for better or worse, the nature of the business. What burns me, as a fan, is the trade they made. Yahoo Sports writer Nick Asbourne is probably being generous when he calls the trade “uninspiring” from a Jays perspective. New York send Toronto two players in return – minor league outfielder Billy McKinney and young infielder Brandon Drury. Which leaves me wondering “what was Ross Atkins thinking?” In short, this doesn’t seem to do anything to improve the Blue Jays, now or down the road.
First we have McKinney. Yes, he was a former first round draft pick. But he’s now in his second year of AAA – akin to a student repeating a year in school – and is ranked as the Yankees 20th best prospect. He has a bit of power but hasn’t shone in the minors and has only a .294 on base percentage this year , which Asbourne notes is “worrisome.” If the kid can’t find his way on base against minor league pitchers in his second go round, what chance will he have against the Sales, Verlanders and Severinos of the world?
Not to mention, Toronto’s not hurting for outfielders. Besides the big league contingent there is the hyped (over-hyped perhaps?) Anthony Alford, hometown boy Dalton Pompey and up-again-down-again Dwight Smith Jr. toiling away just below the major league level. McKinney seems to have little they don’t.
Which leads us to the player with MLB credentials- Brandon Drury. Most Toronto fans are likely only vaguely familiar with his name as he’s now in his third full big league campaign, but his first two were with Arizona, in the NL West we see little of. Drury is not the worst player in the world. He might be the most redundant for this organization.
I don’t mean to make this a diatribe against Drury. He’s not a bad player, he’s quite likely a decent enough man and he is, to quote again from Yahoo’s Asbourne “versatile.” But he offers nothing at all that is of use to the Toronto club unless they have some sort of secret agenda to completely monopolize the world supply of ordinary middle-infielders.
Drury is listed by MLB as a Third Baseman, but he only played one game there last year. He’s played the bulk of his games at second, but can fill in at first or in the outfield if needed. I’d even wager to say he could be thrown into the lineup at Shortstop in an emergency without embarassing himself too badly.
He’s of adequate, but far from golden, defensive skills. Last year, in 114 games at second, he committed only 10 errors, for a solid .977 fielding percentage and had a hand in 61 double plays. Decent, but well behind the league leaders such as colorado’s DJ Lemahieu, who turned 106 DPs and boasted a .989 fielding pct. At the plate, Drury hit quite well in his 2016 rookie campaign, with a .282 average and .786 OPS to go with 16 homers. Since then his numbers have slid, this year hitting below .200 with just 1 HR in pinstripes, albeit in 18 games. That in itself is a bit worrisome- he was on the disabled list for 6 weeks due to severe migraine headaches. chronic headaches seem like the type of problem which could be more difficult to get rid of and overcome than, say, a pulled hamstring and makes you wonder if he’ll be physically able to play for Toronto much. If he does, as Yahoo point out, he will still be a young man in his latter-20s with “subpar walk rate” and “no speed to talk of.”- he has two career stolen bases, for example.
All of which doesn’t mean he couldn’t help a team out. His versatility, modest batting skills and we hope, good attitude are the type of thing that can make a wonderful utility player, the sort of 25th man that can be a useful addition to a championship team. Just not to the Toronto Blue Jays. Toronto already suffers from a huge surplus of – yep, middle infielders. They already have veteran Yangervis Solarte (doing a solid job this year and fluent in all positions infield), Aledemys Diaz, who boasts a career WAR almost identical to Drury’s in the same length of time, Devon Travis (healthier this year but not playing as well as in the past two injury-ridden seasons) and , if he can ever run again, former All star Troy Tulowitzki there with rookie Lourdes Gurriel (who’s looking better by the week), and Richard Urena (who isn’t .) And of course, there’s third baseman of the future Vladimir Guerrero Jr. seemingly ready to make the jump, followed along by Bo Bichette and short and Cavan Biggio (who Baseball America note is Toronto’s most improved young player) at second. All competing for at most three everyday jobs. Solarte could maybe be traded, but what’s the point. Likewise Diaz, but as noted, he’s about the same as Drury, and hasn’t had debilitating headaches to deal with. tulowitzki is under contract through 2020 and owed $34M by the Jays over the next two years, which would be a sure red flag for any team that might have the slightest interest in him should he ever be able to get back to the diamond. In short, there seems to be no room at all for Brandon Drury in this organization.
Which again makes you wonder- what are they thinking?
As we hit the All Star Break, the Blue Jays, 2018 edition, seem very like the Blue Jays, 2017, which is to say rather disappointing and with little very significant to play for . (Like last year, getting back to .500 might be about the most realistic goal for them to achieve.) And once more, as is usually the case with teams running well behind the last wild card team come mid-July, there are lots of trade rumors swirling around the team as it’s assumed (in most cases correctly) that the General Managers of such teams will want to jettison any high-salary player not both signed on beyond the current year but essential to the team’s future as well. In the Jays case, while Steve Pearce has already moved onto greener monsters… err , pastures, and Curtis Granderson and Tyler Clippard’s names come up not infrequently the name it all seems to revolve around is JA Happ. Little wonder, as starting pitching is always at a premium and Happ, a free agent after this season, is the team’s sole All Star representative and being his usual reliable self, with 10 wins and well past 100 innings, even if recent missteps have driven his ERA up to uncharacteristically high levels (4. 29).
I say the Jays should be shopping around a starting pitcher actively and trying to get what they can that will help the team be more competitive for 2019. Only for me, the guy they need to ship out pronto is not JA Happ but Marcus Stroman. If I was Ross Atkins, I’d be talking to JA and his agent, doing my best to re-sign him for a couple more years at least. Granted,Happ will turn 36 not long after the team clear out their lockers at year’s end, but he’s a relatively low-impact, finesse pitcher, the type who usually is slow to lose form and quality. Thinking of him pitching when 37 or 38 is far from unrealistic. And while his ERA is up some this year, his strikeouts are up, he’s holding opponents to a lower batting average than last year and his ratio of strikeouts to walks is fairly consistent with past years. In short, there’s
Tomorrow’s the Big Day. Well, probably not the big day, but it is the day we find the All Star Game roster… unlike past years, the entire rosters, save for the final spot (to be voted on by fans as has been the practise for the past few years) are announced all at once rather than having the starting lineup , as chosen by fans, were announced days in advance of the subs.
Anyway, this year the announcement holds a little less interest than usual for the Jays and fans. Justin Smoak isn’t repeating his 2017 boffo first half, Josh Donaldson has been injured more than active and we’re now in the post-Bautista era (as an aside, check out Joey Bats’ New York numbers… after a slow, brief start with the Braves, he’s been heating up with the Mets, with an on base percentage of over .400 ) . In short, there are no obvious Jays’ candidates to be on the squad.
It seems almost inevitable that the rep for Toronto will be a pitcher. Kevin Pillar’s outfield “D” is brilliant as ever, but a gold glove won’t get you in when you’re hitting below .250 and are on pace for 50 RBI. Teoscar Hernandez has the best OPS for the Jays so far, .823, but as such he’s still only 24th among regular position players, hardly making a claim to be among the AL’s elite outfielders.
Most assume the All Star Blue Jay for ’18 will be JA Happ, and they may be right. Happ has been rock solid once again for Toronto, going 10-4 with a decent ERA of just over 4. Happ tries for #11 later today, against a team most seem to assume he’ll be with in August – the Yankees. I for one, hope they make a diligent effort to re-sign JA, and hold onto him. The organization has plenty of talent coming through the ranks at positions (Guerrero, Bichette, Biggio etc.) but is thin on new blood on the mound beyond Ryan Borucki who’s already here. Happ could be a good veteran anchor to build the rotation around for the next couple of years. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that he might be in a different uniform by the mid-season Classic.
While Happ has been good, it’s not without merit to suggest he’s not an All star. Granted, there’s something to be said about the “right stuff”- like Jack Morris and others before him, Happ seems to know how to pitch just well enough to get the “W” for his team… if you go 10-4 on a team with a losing record, you’re doing something right! But, Happ is just 20th in the league in innings pitched (102 2/3) and his ERA is highest among pitchers with double-digit wins. Since we, as well as every team, get at least one rep (have fun finding a Royals All Star) I would suggest that the proper choice would be Tyler Clippard.
Clippard has done an admirable job of anchoring an overall strong bullpen.The bullpen which has been a highlight of an otherwise rather forgettable season. With 44 appearances, he’s pitched in over half their games and is tied for second in the AL. He’s got a 4-2 record (not that the win-loss counts for much among relief pitchers) and a very decent 3.02 ERA. Not to mention his 6 saves after being thrown into the fire as ergo “closer” upon the suspension of Roberto Osuna. The last time Tyler held that role was in 2015, in the part of the season he spent with the A’s.
Will he be? Probably not. Should he be? I think so. If this past winter, I’d have advocated Clippard for the All Star team, it wouldn’t have surprised me much. I’ve long thought he was one of the better, more under-rated relievers around. What I wouldn’t have expected was for him to be the only suitable choice for the Blue Jays. And that, in a capsule, summarized the disappointment of the 2018 season.