You can almost smell the cut grass… spring training is now a mere two weeks away, and Blue Jays fans have at least a modicum of hope for the 2020 season. Even though most pundits have them firmly lodged in a holding pattern -4th in the AL East- they have improved their rotation considerably from last season and have a quartet of players going into their sophomore campaigns with the potential to be stars. It appears to be, at very least, a team moving in the right direction. To whit, MLB itself puts them on the (lengthy) list of nine teams that have improved in the off-season.
That point made, there’s still considerable room for improvement. And it wouldn’t require a headline-grabbing trade for a Mookie Betts or Nolan Arenado to improve their chances of playing in October. Instead, it could just be a small payout to bolster the depth of the roster with some of the intriguing remaining free agents. So, I suggest the Blue Jays fill out that roster with:
seems a no-brainer by now. We’ve discussed it here before, so we won’t beat that dead horse too much, but it seems obvious that A) the existing Toronto OF is weak defensively, B) Pillar is acknowledged to have been the best defensive OF the team had through the last decade and is still above average, C) he’s popular in Toronto where he’s spent most of his career, and D) teams aren’t batting down the door to get to him, given his so-so hitting capabilities, one assumes. He’s still without a job and the similarly-talented Alex Gordon just signed a one year, $4M deal with his old team, Kansas City. Seems like there’s no reason Toronto and Pillar couldn’t have a similar, affordable reunion.
the team let a couple of veteran backups walk away from the infield (the popular but injury-prone Devon Travis and the perennial AAA/major league shuttling Richard Urena) but have signed a couple of decent veterans to minor league deals with hopes of filling in the bench – Joe Panik and Ruben Tejada. Decent enough gambles but there’s still a sense that the IF lacks depth. Vladimir is being touted or taunted widely as the worst defensive 3B in the game last year, and while Biggio and Bichette are good at their middle-infield posts (and travis Shaw should be able to handle First), there’s not much of a backup should one get injured. So enter Mr. Holt, arguably the most valuable remaining free agent.
Holt has been a regular with Boston for some years, and what he lacks in “wow factor” he makes up in versatility. The 31 year-old bench player has played a minimum of 64 games a year since 2014, and as many as 129, and has played every infield and outfield position. Last year he put in time in all four IF positions as well as the two corner OF ones. And he does so reasonably well- he’s average or a bit above at all the infield spots. Last year, he made only 3 errors while playing 2B and SS, a total of well over 500 innings. All the while, he hits adequately, or very well for a bench-warmer. He bested his career .271 average last year, hitting .297 with 31 RBI and a .771 OPS.
With a rep as a “utility player” and a lack of bigtime home run power in this “all or nothing” league, Holt’s not going to be getting a convoy of Brinks trucks driving up to his house. It seems like Toronto should be able to sign him for no more than about $3M – possibly less based on other signings this winter – and be a lot more confident should they see Cavan Biggio wince in pain running the bases or Bo Bichette twist an ankle turning a double play.
Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen
It’s ironic that in this age when starting pitchers do less and less- some teams see a guy going 6 innings as herculean now – and closers are being paid king’s ransoms, that no one seems to care about the middle relievers. Yet those guys are carrying more and more of the weight, frequently being asked to hold their team in the game for 4 innings, day in, day out. The Blue Jays are no better,nor worse than most other teams in regards to that.
While the Jays should have a vastly improved starting rote than they did last year, and hence one hopes won’t overtax the middle relief quite as much, the ‘pen still looks flimsy. Sure, they have a grade-A closer in Ken Giles, and a very solid, durable long relief guy in Sam Gaviglio whose 95 innings was most for any AL reliever last year, and a couple more decent enough probables like Wilmar Font, but getting from, say starter in the 7th to closer could be precarious.
Happily, there are still a lot of middle relievers unsigned and those signing on the dotted line are typically doing so for low prices. So time for Toronto to pony up $3 or $4 and sign two or three proven arms to supplement the bullpen. First one I’d look to would be tony Sipp, one of the few southpaws left. Yes he’s 36 and yes, he’s looked at as a lefty “specialist” (probably why he’s not signed yet – the new rule about the three batter minimum may discourage teams for signing that kind of pitcher) … last year, his ERA against left-handed batters was under 1.00, against righties was over 10. That perhaps because he got a decent number of ground balls from lefty hitters, and twice as many flyballs, going , going, gone off the bats of right-handed hitters.
Still, with him only a year removed from a 2018 campaign where he pitched in 54 games for Houston with an ERA of 1.86, and the current bullpen devoid of sure-thing lefthanded pitchers (the best bet right now would be Thomas Pannone, who’s been a starter in the minors but has been used out of the pen in the majors) it seems he’s worth a gamble. Robbie Ross and former-Jay Aaron Loup (injured much of 2019) would also be decent guys to look at. the market of right-handed relievers is more saturated, and it would do the team well to look at the likes of Pat Neshek, Sam Dyson or Javy Guerra (who started 2019 as a Blue Jay before going on to help Washington win the World Series) and sign at least one of them.
So there you have it – three easy moves that would likely cost the team far less than ten million that would elevate the Blue Jays from “better than last year but still way behind Tampa and Boston, let alone New York” to “deep enough to perhaps contend.”
It’s not been a bad off-season for the Blue Jays so far. I always try to give credit where it’s due, and Ross Atkins deserves some credit for going out and improving the team’s rather anemic starting rotation, adding a legit Cy Young candidate in Hyun-jin Ryu as well as a couple of solid, inning-eating righties (Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson) and an under-the-radar Japanese pitcher, Shun Yamaguchi. No question that the team will hit the turf in March with a stronger rotation than they ended 2019 with.
However, there’s still work to be done. The front office took care of the question at first base by in a roundabout way trading with the Brewers. Toronto signed ex-Brewer Travis Shaw while in turn, Milwaukee nabbed Toronto’s first baseman for the past five years, Justin Smoak. But the elephant in the room remains the Blue Jays outfield. Everyone agrees it isn’t the OF of a competitive team, but thus far nothing’s been done to remedy the situation.
First let’s recap last year. Lourdes Gurriel, up until then a middle-infielder, was shifted into left field and played acceptably (though far from very well) in his new position, and hit quite well .277 with 20 homers and a .869 OPS in the just over half a season (84 games) he was on the active roster. No big problems there.
Center and right field weren’t so great though. Randal Grichuk, signed to a long-term deal before the season, was probably the best defender but still was hit-or-miss in the field and so-so at the plate. While he did lead the team with 31 HR and 80 RBI, his average was low (.232), his OPS very ordinary at .732 and he struck out nearly five times for every walk he took. Grichuk himself admitted that wasn’t good enough.
This left a whole range of Not Ready For Primetime Players filling in the outfield. Most notable of those was Teoscar Hernandez, who inexplicably was dropped into CF much of the time, despite being an obvious “full time DH” if ever there was one. He hit .230 with 26 homers and a .778 OPS. Add in much-vaunted (by management) Derek Fisher, who hit all of .161 in his 40 games, Anthony Alford – a former can’t miss prospect whose time appears to be running out to make a career out of baseball – who was .179 with one homer in 18 games, and Billy McKinney, a .215 hitter with a .696 OPS in 84 games. And suffice to say, none of those names was going to be mentioned in a conversation about Gold Gloves.
Using the new but currently in vogue “Outs above average” stat, which looks at every play and tries to rank its ease based on how far the runner has to run, how hard the ball is hit and so on, and gauge how hard it is to make the play, only Grichuk comes out with a positive rating. He was seen as adding 6 outs, and being 21st best among full-time OF in the majors. Not too bad, although viewers were sure to notice the day-to-day fluctuations of his fielding. Still that was much better than McKinney (-5 outs), Gurriel (-4) and Fisher who cost the team 3 outs in his limited use and caught the flyballs 4% less than an average fielder. In case you were wondering, the Twins slugger Eduardo Roasario was seen as the absolute worst outfielder by these definitions, with -17 outs.
So we have Gurriel, a decent young hitter who looks mediocre in left; Grichuk, a power hitter with a lack of plate discipline but fair fielding skills… and a bunch of guys who can’t hit, catch or throw. Not a good way to compete with the Yankees or Red Sox, even if the team does now have fairly decent pitching and a promising youthful infield. There’s a clear need for outside help in the outfield.
While there are any number of potential trade candidates, four pretty good OF remain on the free agent market. One hopes Toronto is talking to at least a couple of them. There’s highly-touted Nicholas Castellanos, Marcell Ozuna, former-Jay Kevin Pillar, and the “wild card” in the mix, controversial Yasiel Puig.
Of the four, Puig probably has the highest ceiling, but also the most uncertainties with his health and demeanor. Pillar is likely the best defensive OF of the four, but the weakest hitter. Ozuna and Castellanos are Plan 1A and Plan 1B for a whole range of teams including the Cardinals , White Sox, Cubs and maybe Twins (although they may be spent out now after surprising the sports world by getting 3B Josh Donaldson on board.)
I ran a poll on Twitter and found that an overwhelming majority preferred Castallanos out of the four, by about 4:1 to the both Ozuna and Pillar. Not scientific but a good insight into fan perception of the quartet.
Do I agree? Well, I think any of the four could be beneficial. Let’s look at the four quickly.
Pillar is a known commodity who dominated the team’s “Best Defensive Plays of the Decade” tape. He’s still seen as an above-average defensive OF based on that “outs above average” and is reliable. He’s got 7 seasons under his belt, 6 with Toronto, and has logged 500+ at bats for the past five years. He averages 37 doubles a year over the past four seasons, has good speed and hit a career high 21 homers last year. However, his OPS has never been above the league average, something you’d rather hope an outfielder could do at least once or twice in a career!
Ozuna also has been around for 7 seasons, and has played 123 or more games for the past six. His on base percentage has been .320+ for the last four years and he’s generally around 2 on the WAR scale, although his monster 2017 (37 homers, .924 OPS) with Miami gave him a 6.1, seemingly an outlier of a year.
Castellanos suffered perhaps by playing most of his recent years in the terrible Tigers organization. He also has 7 years experience. He hit career highs last season with 27 HR and an .863 OPS but it’s widely noted that it was the tale of two seasons in one for Nick. With Detroit for much of the season, he had a .462 slugging percentage and one homer per 37 at bats . After being traded to the Cubs at the deadline, he skyrocketed to one homer per 13 at bats and a .646 slugging. If he’s really the Tiger Castallanos, he’s a decent, workaday, nothing unusual outfielder. If he’s the Cubby Castallanos, he’s a budding superstar, a possible 45 HR/125 RBI guy. So discerning which player he is will be of importance to any club wanting to sign him!
Puig too, has 7 years of service and is still only 29 which surprises some. He’s had health issues along the way (missing a cumulative 140 games between 2015-16) but has played 140+ games each of the past three. He’s got some speed, averaging 16 steals a year over the past three, and has posted decent OPS of .833, .820 and .785 over the past three years. He has some home run power and a strong arm. The problem with Yasiel seems to be primarily that he came up as an expected superstar but has developed only into a slightly above-average player, disappointing some therefore, and that he’s perceived as being something of a slacker. Determining whether that last part is true would be of vital import to any team looking at him.
Overall last season, Castellanos had the best WAR with 2.7, followed by Ozuna at 2.2, Pillar at 1.0 then Puig at 0.5. Strangely though, all four posted negative defensive WARS , which seems counter-intuitive given Pillar’s reputation and +outs above average. However, of the 4, only Castellanos had a truly bad defensive rating, of -1.5.
In short, any of the four could potentially be an upgrade for Toronto over Teoscar Hernandez, Billy McKinney or Derek Fisher . Which one would I prefer? Whichever one is willing to sign in Toronto on a one or two year deal that won’t break the bank, given that none of them are likely to be “drive-the-team-to-the-World-series-by-themselves” guys. My best bet is that Pillar would return to the team he knows well at a reasonable rate, or that as spring training draws nearer Puig could still find himself on the outside looking in and go for a one year deal with a low base rate and lots of incentives designed to show he is still a viable star and could really hammer the ball in the hitter-friendly AL East.
Get to those phones, Mr. Atkins!
The Blue Jays have winged east and are about to open an interleague series against San Francisco tonight at the Rogers’ Centre. As it stands, the biggest ovation will probably be for one of the opponents – Kevin Pillar, the longtime Jays outfielder with the stellar glove, recently traded to the Giants. No disrespect at all to Kevin, but that should not be the case today.
More and more people are recognizing a few things about the AL East this season. Toronto isn’t all that bad, to the surprise of many. Boston isn’t as good as anyone thought or any World Series champion is expected to be. New York have a fantastic roster…on the injured list. Baltimore is bringing back 2018, which is to say rather awful and Tampa are surprisingly good, but facing a bit of adversity now. Reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell has a broken toe and is going to miss another start or three, putting more pressure on the heavily burdened bullpen; .353 hitting Austin Meadows broke his thumb meanwhile and is gone for probably two to three weeks. No one is expecting Toronto to win the division this year, but suddenly it is also obvious that it doesn’t look like any team is going to cakewalk to the title. Which begs the question, why not go , well if not “all out” to win, at least “partly out” to try to win? Toronto currently is coming off a series sweep over Oakland and sit just 4 games out of first, closer still to a potential Wild Card spot.
Someone called “Hum and Chuck” suggested as much yesterday on Twitter and while I didn’t totally agree with all of her solution (which included biting the bullet and calling Scott Boras to get Dallas Keuchel to sign on with Toronto) her gist was spot on. Toronto isn’t totally out of the running, and with an addition or two, could make it a pretty exciting year for fans.
To start with, both Hum and Chuck and I are in agreement that there should be a nice car driven to Buffalo today to bring one Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the north shores of Lake Ontario. If the applause for Pillar will be loud when he comes out in San Fran orange and black, imagine the cheers for the most-hyped, top-rated prospect in the game if he emerged wearing hometown blue and white!
As we’ve talked about here before, Vlad missed time in spring with an “oblique” injury, but has been playing, and playing well for some 3 weeks now. In 6 games with AAA Buffalo, he’s 8 for 21, with 2 homers and 7 RBI. That comes after last season, which you may recall won him a number of Minor League awards, hitting .381 with 78 RBI and a .636 slugging percentage over 95 games. As we also talked about, there were financial reasons to keep him demoted for two to three weeks to delay his eventual free agency down the road. That day has already come and gone. He simply cannot hit the 172 day threshold this year, ensuring thus that Toronto will control his contract for one more year than if he’d begun the season here. So what’s the holdup?
According to Toronto, it would be “reckless” to do promote him right now, because… he’s not playing enough in the minors! The weather’s been stinky in upstate New York and New England lately, and Buffalo’s had two rainouts in the last five days and thus Guerrero has had only one trip to the plate over the past weekend. The team answer inexplicably is to keep him down and send him with the Bisons to Syracuse for a 4-game series. We ask why, oh why not bring him up now,let him get his at bats at the major league level – how much more ready could he be?- and not worry about rainouts or cold weather (since although Toronto’s climate is pretty much similar to Syracuse’s, obviously Toronto has the benefit of a domed stadium). The time is right, the time is now. Bring him up and send respectable but ordinary utility guy Richard Urena back to AAA for a stretch.
Then there’s the pitching, So far, Toronto’s has been good – 88 runs allowed over 23 games – but it suffered a big blow last week when Matt Shoemaker, who’d been stellar in four starts, tore his knee up on a fielding play and announced he’ll miss the rest of the season. Rookie Trent Thornton is looking shakier by the game and clearly, to remain close to competitive, a new arm or two is needed. While the Twitter writer suggested Keuchel, who’s sat out this far into the year waiting for a big, long-term contract, we’d suggest a slightly more modest target – Gio Gonzalez.
Gonzalez was just released by the Yankees, who’d signed him to a minor league deal with an option to leave if not in the Bronx by last week. He would’ve made a modest $3 million had he made the team. Which makes one think he might be far more amenable to a one year deal that wouldn’t break a team’s bank. Why wait Blue Jays?
Gonzalez is 33, and a few years beyond his prime maybe. Nothing however, suggests he’s washed up. He started 3 games this spring at AAA, going 15 innings and 2-1. The southpaw made 32 starts last year, going 10-11 with a 4.21 ERA between Washington and Milwaukee. The year before he was a rather impressive 15-9 with a 2.96 ERA over 201 innings and a WAR of 6. He’s been nothing short of a reliable workhorse this decade, He’s made 27 or more starts and gone 170+ innings every season since 2009. With his control and stingy allowance of homers through his career, he’d be a great #4 or 5 guy in Toronto’s rotation, help save bullpen arms and perhaps add some mature wisdom to the myriad of youngsters in the clubhouse. So I say, get on that phone Ross Atkins… right after you get that Uber to Buffalo to bring Vladimir to Toronto.
Last but not least, the one we care most about here. I’ll be brief to get this up before we start counting All Star ballots! Will the twin powerhouses in Boston and New York still rev, or will the Rays shine brighter than expected? And of course,how about those nest rebuilding Blue Jays?
TEAM bY TEAM:
Baltimore – last year’s Orioles were appallingly bad, going 47 -115. Funny thing is, they didn’t seem too worried and did little in the off-season leading to the question, “they can’t be as bad as that again…can they?” On paper, the answer is “yes, and then some” but realistically look for them to win a few more due to law of averages, or other teams deciding to have fun and wear blindfolds on the field against them to keep it interesting or something. Still, with Adam Jones gone, they will need a big comeback from Chris Davis who had one of the worst seasons on record last year, hitting .168 with a -2.7 WAR. He’s now 6 years removed from his 50 homer, 138 RBI year, but don’t fret O’s fans. He’s under contract for 4 more years so you’ll have lots of chances to see him rebound… Dylan Bundy is their top starter and last year he served up more homers than any pitcher anywhere in 7 years. Which gives you an idea of the player value of Alex Cobb and Kevin Cashner, the #2 and 3 guys.
Boston – like Baltimore, the Red Sox rather rested on their laurels in the off-season. Unlike the Orioles, the Sox were the best team in baseball last year and won a World Championship, so not doing a whole lot might be the way to go. Big question mark (and no it’s not perennial Cy Young candidate Chris sale, even if he did give up 7 runs on opening day against Seattle) is who takes over from Craig Kimbrel as closer? Seems like Matt Barnes has been appointed that, and he should do OK, although it’s not a slam dunk. While he did stirkeout 96 in just 61 innings last year, he also walked too many (31) and had an ERA of 3.65. He’s only be called on to get 2 saves in the past three years, so how he handles pressure will be a question. But, with the offense the team has, there might not be that many close games for him to save in the 9th anyhow!
New York – the Bronx Bombers are getting tired of not winning World Series, and set out to do something about it, beefing up the rotation in the winter with James Paxton and re-upping late season acquisition JA Happ and aging CC Sabathia. With the power bats of Judge, Stanton, rookie of year near miss Miguel Andujar, the team is loaded. About the only thing that could cloud that October-blue sky for them would be injuries. Ahem… Andujar has a shoulder tear and although he says he won’t need surgery, most are skeptical and don’t see him returning this year. Sabathia’s not back yet from heart surgery last year, super-reliever Dellin Betances is out with a “shoulder impingement” and hopes to be back in May but don’t set your calendar on it… he was topping out at 93MPH in spring, about 7 miles below his usual heat. Didi Gregorious won’t be back from shoulder surgery until the All Star Break, and who knows when Jacoby Ellsbury will get back from hip surgery. Worse yet, wunderkind starter Luis Severino has a rotator cuff injury. When was the last time you saw a starting pitcher return promptly from that? And for good measure, Giancarlo Stanton just hurt his biceps and will miss at least a couple of weeks. Yet, for all that the Yanks sitll look like contenders.
Tampa Bay – glance at the Rays roster and it doesn’t look like much. But you don’t see Kevin Cash’s smoke and mirrors listed. How the Rays won 90 last year, in this divsion, is a total Sherlock Holmes case. But they made their shifts, started bullpen arms and utilized players you never heard of to win and win regularly. It would be arrogant to think they won’t do so again. Still, good as Blake Snell is, it might be tough for him to repeat his Cy performance of ’18 featuring a 1.89 ERA and club record 21 wins. He did after all,allow fewer hits last year in 181 innings than he did in 2017 in just 129 and he got knocked around on opening day by Houston who smacked 3 homers off him. But he’s a qualtiy pitcher for sure, and then players like Kevin Kiermaier (.217, only 29 RBI last year in an injury-shortened season) could bounce back and Tommy Pham looks like the next unknown hero-in-the-making after reveling in his chance to play every day once traded from St. Louis. Career highs in games and at bats last year didn’t harm his performance, and in the tail-end of the year…the tampa end… he hit .343 with a .622 slugging percentage. So how good will the smoke and mirrors be this year?
Toronto – as I write this, I’m seeing the longest-serving Jay, Kevin Pillar was just traded to SF for two minor league pitchers of little note and a backup infielder, Alen Hanson, who Athlon note is a very good left-handed hitter, but not good hitting from the right which he also does. It’s a shame to see Pillar go, especially without winning at least one Gold Glove for Toronto, which he richly deserved, but it’s characteristic of the new Jays. Last week they traded aging DH Kendrys Morales to the other Bay Area Team (Oakland) . Both trades don’t bring back a huge return but freed up roster spots for young talent; Rowdy Tellez in Morales’ case (as backup 1B and part time DH) and presumably,Anthony Alford in this one. Alford was once one of the team’s top prospects and seen as a 5-tool star in the making but his star has dipped, last year hitting a weakly .238 with 5 homers in the minors. He seems to have gottne serious and had a great spring training, so he’s another young buck we’ll have lots of chances to evaluate. Along with outfielders like Billy McKinney, Teoscar Hernandez and any number of infielders who could appear, most notably of course 3B Vladimir Guerrero who’s now rehabbing in Florida and could/should appear in Canada by the end of the month.
there’s a lot to grumble about (even the mayor quickly was commenting on what a loss to the city Pillar would be) , but a lot to be optimistic for the long-term about as well. Oddly, the initial concept was that Jays would be a good-hitting team with a thin pitching staff, but so far the reverse is true. through the first five, they’re hitting an anemic .180 as a team with only 29 hits, but the pitching has been spectacular, with the starters not allowing a run in the first four games, something not done by any team since the 1970s. One is reminded that not too long ago, before blisters, injuries and (on #6’s part) temper tantrums, both Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman were among the elite of the young pitching talent in the game.
BOSTON – 104 – 58
NEW YORK – 99 – 63
TAMPA BAY- 80 – 82
TORONTO – 78 – 84
BALTIMORE – 56 – 106
A postscript that NY may struggle to get to 99 if injuries to Andujar and Severino keep them out for the whole year and that Baltimore look to me like a team that will win less than last year… but it’s mindwarping to imagine they could end up with more than 115 losses!
“I think guys are upset… we have some talented players that aren’t playing upto their capabilities” – Kevin Pillar , quoted in Associated Press today.
Well, no argument about that. After a promising start in March/April, the Blue Jays fell apart in May, seemingly doing nothing right. Granted, weather problems in April that resulted in a grueling 8 game, 7 day road trip early on wore them down a little, but three weeks later, they show no signs of recovering from that little spell. More often than not there seemed to be a sort of sense of hopelessness combined with indifference on the field for a team that we hoped would have a legitimate shot at contending in 2018 Instead, now most fans seem to be contenting themselves with guessing who’ll the team will trade Josh Donaldson (a name which comes to mind when reading Pillar’s statement, I would add) to or when young Vladimir Guerrero Jr. will show up in the Big Leagues.
Team Record – 9 – 19 .321
which saw them quickly drop to fourth in the division, ahead of only the sadsack Orioles.
Player of Month – Yangervis Solarte
Solarte made his presence known, particularly with an incredible 8-hit day that included a grand slam when playing a double header in Cleveland. He’s shown a good versatility playing around the infield, and his offense was as good as anyone’s on the team in May – .264 with 4 homers, 18 RBI and a .445 slugging percentage (which is worth noting was down from April.) Not spectacular numbers, but quite good, and I’ll give him the nod over Justin Smoak who was not far off (.244/4/12 and 20 walks leading toa .404 on base percentage.)
Pitcher of Month – JA Happ
Again. Happ’s showing he was very worthy of the opening day start, currently leading the team in wins, innings pitched and Ks. After starting the month with rough outings against Tampa and Seattle he rebounded with three straight wins, over which he struck out 23 in 20 2/3 innings and had a stellar 1.70 ERA. Overall, he sits at 7-3 and may be the team’s most likely rep at the All Star Game.
Story Of Month – Roberto Osuna’s Arrest
Just when things were going fine, or so we thought. Osuna was quickly gaining recognition as one of the elite closers in baseball, had 9 quick saves … and then got busted in Toronto for domestic assault. Pictures of him in a Canadian jail cell were leaked and MLB quickly, and reasonably, removed him from the Jays active roster. As of this time, he remains on “paid leave” and the “restricted list” , presumably while the league try to get more details of the incident and decide on his suspension, which past history tells us will likely be in the range of 25 games, but could be more. Since that time, John Axford and Tyler Clippard have stepped up and done solid work but his absence has undoubtedly weakened a good bullpen and since , the team is just 6-15.
Tomorrow is a new month, while it now seems rather unrealistic to project forward to this team playing post-season baseball in October, let’s hope it at least starts a turning of a “mental calendar” in the clubhouse and there’ll be some of the excitement we saw early on this year.
So with one month (well, technically two if we include March as a baseball month its own right), the Blue Jays have given us reason to be excited – and to cringe. Which is to say, more or less what we expected!
Team Record – 16 12 .571
which was good for third place and just shy of the wildcard spot. run differential of +28 was good. In short, better than last year, but trailing Boston and New York like most predicted.
Interestingly they had similar won-lost records at home and on the road. Tellingly, but not a surprise, they were just 5-7 against the teams that are supposed to be shoo-ins for the playoffs (Yankees, Red Sox, Indians) and a solid 11-5 against all other teams. If that continues, they will probably continue to be on the verge of a wildcard spot.
Player of Month – Kevin Pillar
is my pick. there was no overwhelming standout, which also bodes well since obviously the team’s not relying on just one bat. Almost everyone’s contributed at times, and Luke Maile and Yangervis Solarte have been nice surprises. Pillar’s been great at the plate and in the field though. He’s hitting .315 with 4 homers, 15 RBI and a team high 12 doubles, 5 steals. And a nice .574 slugging percentage, second to Teoscar Hernandez among regulars.
A caveat though, last year he also exceled in April and cooled off soon after. In 2017,he hit .301 with a .505 slugging percentage.After that he managed only .226 with a .351 slugging.
Pitcher of the Month- J.A. Happ
the only reliable one of the starting rotation, unfortunately. Six starts in he’s sitting at 4-1, 3.50 ERA (noticeably better than career 3.92 but similar to last year’s 3.53) with 50 strikeouts in just 36 innings and a great 7:1 K to BB ratio. Opponents are hitting just .219 against him. Unlike Pillar, Happ got off to a bit of a slow and injury-hampered beginning last year. The good point is that one would hope Marcus stroman and Marco Estrada will improve to something close to their potential or norm and if so, the team could really make a run for it since the
Story of the Month is bullpen strength.
The rotation has struggled badly but the ‘pen has been rock solid, with a stellar 2.16 ERA over 95+ innings (which equates to about 3 1/3 per game.) Tyler Clippard, John Axford, Ryan Tepera, Danny Barnes, roberto Osuna and only-around-a-day-or-two Tim Mayza all boast ERA’s better than 2. If the starters can help and give a few more innings, the bullpen should definitely keep Toronto in the running through the season.
Well, off to see how they’re doing in Minnesota today…
And now- drumroll please- our Blue Jays and their competition in the AL East:
Baltimore – it’s hard to know what to make of the Orioles. They’re one of a few teams that seem to neither be “All in” nor “all out” in terms of trying to win this year. As always, they should put runs on the board- Adam Jones, Manny Machado (as long as he stays by the Chesepeake), Jonathan Schoop who surprised all topping 100 RBI last year. Chris Davis on the other hand, has seen a Bautista-like offensive graph through the past three seasons, going 47/38/26 HR, .562/.499/.423 slugging and with walks dropping off as well. Now in his 11th season, it’s unlikely he’s going to be the big bat that protects the others in the lineup again. Regardless of that, while Alex Cobb was a decent (if overpaid) addition and young Dylan Bundy may progress, the rotation is still rather horrible. Brad Brach isn’t too bad, but he’s no Zach Britton – but will have to replace him in the closer’s role for half the year or more while Britton rehabs from surgery. Last but not least- Colby Rasmus. Winners. Don’t seem to go together well, do they? Projection: 70 – 92
Boston – much ado about J.D. Martinez’s signing after months of speculation, is not about nothing. Martinez is a great power hitter who should excel in Fenway and the East division, even if last season was a bit of an outlier. There’s a lot to like here, of course, from Mookie Betts who was a bit disappointing last year but still topped 100 RBI to Chris Sale who’s as likely as anyone to win the Cy Young this year, to Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen. And sophomore Third Baseman, Rafael Devers, who at age 20 last year hit .284 with 10 HR in 58 games, after hitting .311 with 20 more round-trippers in the minors. A .300/30/95 , >850 OPS year wouldn’t surprise. But there are questions still. Like sophomore Third Baseman Devers’ fielding, which has been shaky at best at any level of the game and at 6′, 240, is also a guy who perhaps lacks requisite range for the “hot corner”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him shifted to first, or DH by mid-season and perhaps Manny Machado come in via trade if Baltimore seem out of contention (which they will.) Stephen Wright and Drew Pomeranz start the year on the DL and neither look to be dominant starters when back (and in the former’s case, that will also be after a 15 game suspension for domestic violence.) A scout told Sports Illustrated the biggest challenge for the pitching coach is to get David Price’s head screwed on right; Price has the talent to be a solid #2 starter but has also got quite a chip on his shoulder about his team and city it represents. A few things could trip up new manager Alex Cora, not the least of which is Cora and his inexperience himself. Projection: 88 – 74
New York: Toronto’s already had a look at the behemoth Bronx Bombers, and well- it went better than some expected. Many seem to have already proclaimed the Yanks as the Natural Born Champions, but I’m not so sure. Indeed they have talent to spare. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton may not (likely will not) match their 2017s, but working off each other in the hitter-friendly parks should top 80 homers and 200 ribbies between themselves if they stay mainly healthy. Didi Gregorius is starting to look like a fitting replacement for Derek Jeter after being a regrettable choice having a tough job; the 28 year old has gone from .265/.276/.287 average, 9/20/25 homers through the past 3 seasons, all the while improving his fielding to be now, above-average at short. Neil Walker was a great veteran addition at second. Sonny Gray’s an under-rated starter and a nice followup to power-throwing young Luis Severino who will be in only his second complete season with them after lowering his ERA by better than 2 runs last year to 2.98. CC Sabathia isn’t All Star material anymore, but is a reliable innings-eater who should have his 12th 30-start year and has a chance to make it to 250 career wins (he needs 13 to hit that now lofty plateau.) New manager Aaron Boone has lots to work with, but still has a few potential problems with some aging veterans, a weak bottom end of rotation and Aroldis Chapman as closer. He throws bullets, but never has become the dominant, wily pitcher the Reds, then NY hoped him to be. Projection- 95 – 67
Tampa Bay – The Rays had 694 runs last year, one more than Toronto at the bottom of the AL. They responded by getting rid of Franchise Player Evan Longoria, as well as Stephen Souza and Logan Morrison. They brought in Carlos Gomez (who hit just 17 HR with homer-happy texas last season) to replace them. Denard Span and Kevin Kiermaier give them speed and “D” in the outfield, but there’s little to cheer on the field and too few fans in the stands to cheer for them anyway. Pitching-wise, they’re a bit better but the loss of Odorizzi and Cobb will hurt. I personally am not a huge fan of Chris Archer. He’s ok, by all means, but no “Ace”. He’s perceived as a “kid” but will be 30 before season’s end, and is two full seasons removed from what so far is his “Career year”, in which he hit highs in wins (12), innings (212), strikeouts (252) and best in ERA (3.23) On a given day he can look unhittable, but just as likely as not, he’ll struggle to make it through 5 next time to the mound. It’ll be a long summer on the Gulf Coast. Projection: 65 – 97
Toronto – I’ll look at our Jays in a bit more depth next time out. In short, they need more production than they had last year if they want to compete, and while perhaps Solarte and Diaz will do that by improving upon last year’s IF backups Goins and Barney (and are likely to be everyday players like Goins was last year) and with Randal Grichuk seen as a power threat, they’ll really need two more things: Justin Smoak to prove that last year’s April-July weren’t flukes, and a more aggressive approach on the bases. Today’s 2 homers from Justin and incredible three steal inning (including stealing home!) from Kevin Pillar go a ways towards suggesting they will see that happen. I personally think Pillar could be a “breakout” player in 2018, perhaps hitting career highs in average, slugging and steals. the pitching should be very good if the starter’s stay in good health; starting depth isn’t a strength. The bullpen however, is a strength and if any fall down there, Buffalo should be able to provide quick and effective replacements. Projection : 87 – 75
So where does that leave us: With New York, Cleveland and Houston in as division champs and Bosox and our own Blue Jays in the Wild card game. Houston should take on the wild card, New York and Cleveland battle each other. I’d go with Cleveland over the Bronx, and Houston, alas,over either Toronto or Boston.
Here’s what my picks look like with the “panel of experts” from SI, Yahoo and USA Today mentioned in the NL column.
|my pick||top pick of others||second pick||third pick|
|East||New York||New York (11)||Boston (3)|
|AL Champ||Houston||Houston (5)||New York (4)||Cleveland (3)|
Despite an ugly loss today, it’s pretty exciting to be spending Labour Day with the Jays in first place, a lofty 19 games above .500. The last time we could say that was back in that mystical and almost mythical year, 1993. With a full month to go, it appears close to a done deal that the team will end their 21-year run of futility and make the playoffs (at very least as a Wild card team) and that they’ll blow past my spring prediction of 81 wins for them this season. Of course, that’s one prediction I don’t mind seeing going down in flames, nor does it make me feel particularly bad… if they play only .500 for the remainder of the year, the Jays will hit the 90-win mark. I personally didn’t see anyone in any Spring Training time blog or publication predict more than 86 for the Blue Jays this year. So, what went right?
Many things, as must be the case for any division leader. The team’s been reasonably healthy, all things considered, which is a huge and unpredictable plus. The trades for Tulowitzki and Price have revitalized the players and fans and seemed to turn the year around. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista are having very good years- again! John Gibbons didn’t panic in May when people (myself included) were calling for his head when the blue train derailed, so to speak. He stayed the course and the team righted itself, which might not have happened under a new manager. But most of all, 4 players stand out to me that have made the team “over-achieve”, four big surprises. (Note that word– of course, for example, Bautista has been important and excellent, but that he has 96 RBI and counting is almost what we expected of him by now, not a surprise.)
Marco Estrada– a pitcher most fans didn’t know much about when he was sent over from the Brewers in return for Adam Lind. Most fans felt a bit cheated. I expected a run-of-the-mill Todd Redmond clone; a respectable long man for the bullpen who could make a spot start or two but wasn’t going to be much of a factor at all. Instead we have a guy who’s flirted with two no-hitters, has a stellar 3.18 ERA and is getting better as he gains confidence. Since July 25, he’s 5-2 with a 2.74 ERA.
I’m not too surprised that others are surprised by the 32-year old Mexican as well. His 23 starts so far ties his career high and his dozen wins make it his first double-digit win season. His ERA is about half a run better than his previous best and , assuming he doesn’t get blown out of the water in the first or second, his next game will see him top his previous best of 150 innings.
Athlon Sports considered him “trade bait” and too prone to giving up homers to win in Toronto back in spring. I would have shuddered to think of going into the playoffs with him being the #3 or 4 starter. Given his second-half performance, I’d now feel OK with him on the mound in a Game 7. Estrada has kept the at times sketchy rotation afloat this year.
Roberto Osuna– the youngest pitcher in baseball, he wasn’t listed on most spring rosters for the Jays and barely on anyone’s radar. Why would he be? despite having some good power and raw pitches, he’d never pitched above A-ball and last year, he made all of 8 appearances (as a starter, it should be noted), averaged less than 3 innings a game and was hit to the tune of a .308 opponents average. Who saw him becoming one of the most confident, lights-out big league closers by August??
I thought it was audacious for Alex Anthopoulos to try Miguel Castro as a closer in the early-going. He, we’d at least heard of. No one really expected Osuna to take the job and run with it after Castro was demoted and Cecil seemed incapable of handling the stress. But run with it he has. He leads all rookies with 16 saves (only C.Smith of Seattle have more than two among other rookies), set a franchise record for consecutive saves and has a pretty dazzling 2.11 ERA helped out by a 67:12 K to BB ratio. More importantly, the 20 year-old looks Mariano Rivera-confident in close games staring down the Yankees, Orioles or Rangers. The closer’s role was a big question mark for the team this year. it looks like Roberto is the big answer.
Josh Donaldson– sure, when the surprising trade was made to get the 29 year old Auburn alumni from Oakland, we knew he was good. I said, like most others at the time, that he’d make us forget about Canuck Brett Lawrie. We figured, based on ballparks in the East and on his own comments about balls he hit last year that almost flew out, that he’d get 30 homers for the first time. maybe 35.
What we didn’t figure is that he was going to be the leading candidate for AL MVP. that he’d run away with the RBI lead, despite hitting second in front of the “big bats.” That when TV commentator Gregg Zaun suggested he was good but not the best, that he (Josh) would drive in 9 runs over the next two nights. With a month to go, his 38 doubles, 37 homers, 115 RBI are all career highs as are his .306 average and .963 OPS. Given that his career average pre-Toronto was .267 and he’d hit one HR per 22.4 at bat (compared to one every 14 this year), who could have imagined? His 10 sac flies this year is already equal to the total from the past two years combined. And while he’s made a few too many throwing errors, he has visibly improved the already solid defence at third for the Jays compared to Lawrie (who was above average to begin with.) We knew Donaldson could add to the club- we didn’t know he could carry it on his back!
Kevin Pillar – in March I wrote that he was a “serviceable backup” outfielder. by late April I noted he was “off to a hot start” and that he “could shift to center” if Michael Saunders got healthy . Saunders didn’t, which might be a blessing in disguise, since it’s given Kevin a chance to be an everyday player.
Pillar’s been OK at the plate, but that hasn’t been the big surprise. His numbers this year (.267 average, .379 slugging) are very close to his numbers last year; 10 HR is a nice bonus but not remarkable; only his 18 SB is truly surprising with his offense… unless we consider the fact that he’s kept up his totals over 500 at bats, more than the past two years combined. Where he shines is with his defence.
In the past, Pillar looked decent in left field. At times he’d make a noteworthy catch, but his range, throwing arm , even his apparent effort were pretty ordinary. something’s happened to the 26 year-old this season and as a result, he’s pretty much a fixture on the “Plays of the Week” segments, even for fans watching in far-flung places like Texas. Pillar’s stealing the homers, making the dives, running down the balls in the gap- finding ways to keep the opponent’s off the board and keep his pitchers happy. The stats show it- this year,he’s third in the AL in fielding percentage among CF , behind only Mike Trout and the under-rated rifle-armed Leonys Martin of Texas. His range factor (as quoted by mlb dot com) is better than those two though, and in fact is the best in baseball among regular outfielders. Ten outfield assists show that he has quite an arm too.
With comparisons abounding between this year’s Jays and the greats of ’92-93, Kevin Pillar really turns heads. Not Black, skinny or Jamaican, Pillar still manages to remind one of Devon White from those teams. Consider that White, in 1992, hit .248 with 17 HR, 60 RBI and a .693 OPS. Pillar sits at .267, 10, 46 and a .681 OPS. More importantly, White, often considered the franchise’s best-ever defensive CF, had a.985 fielding percentage, 8 assists and a 2.97 Range Factor in ’92. Pillar’s has topped the fielding percentage and number of assists and has a 2.93 range.
We may not have the new Roberto Alomar yet, but with Pillar we have the new Devon White. Bring on October!