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 – 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.
Well the calendar says the number of days is getting shorter… til Spring Training! And the Blue Jays still have some gaping holes in the lineup if they want to compete next year or give the fans a reason to fill the Rogers’ Centre better than any other AL park yet again. In the past couple of weeks I”ve discussed some of the obvious needs- someone to replace Bautista’s bat (atlhough still noting that Jose himself would be , or should be, welcomed back but at a reduced rate and with a lesser role than he’s played for the past 7 years) , the middle infield, a real major league calibre catcher to back-up Russell Martin, the need to add to the starting rotation. Today we wrap it up like a gift with a few more holes to plug.
Starting with the #5 starter. Thankfully even the team itself seems to acknowledge they need to add in another starting pitcher (see the team website) although, as we heard here, to me they need two. Heck, given the propensity of pitchers to get injured, they would do well to add 3, but two might be adequate. I said here that they should not plan on Aaron Sanchez being in that rote in ’18- perhaps he will, but given the inexact nature of medical know-how on his blister problem, it’s unwise to assume it will solve itself- and should add a primo #4 guy, either by free agency (Lance Lynn or yu Darvish perhaps) or by trade for Josh Donaldson should he want too much in ways of a long-term deal beyond ’18 (which perhaps could leverage Carlos Martinez from the Cards or Drew Pomeranz or Rick Porcello from the Red Sox.) We’ll assume that gets done and still say, who is #5?
Joe Biagini was a puzzle in 2017. At times he looked comfortable and competent on the mound, then the next outing would look like a beer-league castoff. I wouldn’t write him off, especially for the future, but think he and the team would benefit from him having another year at buffalo to refine his skills.
Most of the Jays pitching prospects are either mediocre, or good but at a lower level in the minors, so it’s improbable a solid prospect will come up and dazzle at the Big League level in ’18. The team lists TJ Zeuch as their top pitching prospect, and the 6’7” rightie has a wicked 96mph fastball but not much else yet, and was 3-6 at A level in ’17. Pencil him in as “possible” for 2019. Ryan Borucki is an intriguing prospect, being a southpaw who’ll be 23 by Dunedin time. Tommy John surgery in ’13 put him a bit behind on the curve, but also should suggest he should be in prime health. Last year, between all 3 levels of minors, he started 27 games , went 8-8 with a 2.93 ERA and had a better than 4:1 K:BB ratio. He just might be the spring surprise for the team in a few months, but I’d prefer not to bet the farm on it.
So, the team needs a #5 starter. If the #4 spot is solid (See above), they could do worse than looking for a cheap starter looking to show that he still belongs, such as Yovanni Gallardo and/or Jake Peavy. Offering either a minor league deal with lots of incentives should they rebound to major league level, would be a good gamble.
Which leaves the left side of the bullpen. the right side looks solid, with Roberto Osuna, Ryan Tepera, Carlos Ramirez being promising, team rookie-of-the-year Danny Barnes and perhaps Joe Biagini among others, but the southpaw end is a bit weak. Aaron Loup’s sidearm worked a bit better last year, and Matt Dermody showed promise but there’s no denying (once again, see official Jays website) they could do with a more reliable arm there. To me, Zach Duke is the obvious candidate. The former star was coming back from Tommy John surgery last year, and did so quicker than most. And effectively. He held rightie hitters to a .148 avg last year, curiously enough, and from 2014-2016 averaged better than 70 games a year with a 2.75 ERA. At age 35, he won’t be getting a blockbuster deal, and all indications thus far seem to suggest the price of relievers may be dropping (unlike many other places on the diamond.) It’s not unrealistic to think he might sign a one year, maybe $2M deal to prove he’s in good form still and look for one last, 3 or 4 year deal in 2019 to retire on.
Go to it, Ross Atkins! May Santa be good to him, and to all of you too! And, as we look back on the season gone down, may Santa bring the team the spirit and work ethic of the dear departed Roy Halladay. A handful of players in the locker room with Doc’s ethics would go a long ways to assuring a happy October 2018.