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Typically, 30 or so games into the MLB season, I would have already written at least one column about the Toronto Blue Jays, oozing with excitement about a Josh Donaldson blast while being equally infuriated by a handful of R.A. Dickey starts.
I have to apologize to my faithful readers for the delay — I have no flipping clue what has gone on or what to make of this team so far.
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After the second-straight exit in the American League Championship Series, the Blue Jays entered an offseason with three big question marks.
Fans knew that the pitching staff that led the American League in ERA was slated to return healthy with a year of experience. The three key pieces in the bullpen were locked into return along with the addition by subtraction when they let Brett Cecil walk. Also, there was addition by addition, with the J.P. Howell and Joe Smith signings.
The questions surrounded their batting order.
Their three all-star bats, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Michael Saunders all entered free agency at the same time.
Saunders was seen as replaceable. He was the youngest of the three, but a breakout campaign by a typically injured player, partnered with the emergence of Ezequiel Carrera’s launch angle, made it easy to part ways with the Victoria, B.C. product.
Bats or Edwing?
That was the question. Unlikely to keep them both — aging sluggers at the back end of their peak, looking to cash in on their last chance at a glorious payday (the older version of Carlos Delgado/Shawn Green controversy) — the debate raged on.
Both with fairly similar numbers, one can talk themselves into liking one over the other. The Blue Jays had to make a choice.
General manager Ross Atkins and president Mark Shapiro approached Encarnacion first publicly, offered him a deal for four years and $80 million. Quickly rejecting, Encarnacion thought it would be best for the market to sort itself out in search of a Chris Davis-esque contract.
The Jays panicked, not wanting to be left empty-handed if Bats and Edwing both walked, they inked Steve Pearce and Kendrys Morales to multi-year deals.
Weeks later, Encarnacion signed with the Cleveland Indians, turning into the MLB version of Kevin Durant; jumping ship to the team that ousted him in the playoffs last season.
Edwing signed for $60 million over three years, with a $25 million club option for a fourth year, which turned out to be $20 million less than the Jays offer.
Salvaging the offseason, the Jays’ brass agreed on a mutually beneficial deal with Bautista, bringing back one half of the thunderous duo from the previous season.
Entering spring training, the simple math looked like this; gone were Edwin’s 42 dingers and 127 RBI, but added to the lineup was Morales’ 30 bombs and 93 RBI, (two years removed from a Silver Slugger Award) and whatever you want to make out of Pearce’s career (career .768 OPS with 221 RBI in 1,706 games).
Manageable, especially with the pitching staff and defensive game-changers – Kevin Pillar, Troy Tulowitzki, Russell Martin and Donaldson – back in the fold.
When you bring the band back for another tour, you should expect the same type of performance.
Not according to pre-season poles, however.
Entering the season, Baseball Prospectus tagged the Jays to finish at .500, 81-81. Eight wins seems like a big drop for a team that subtracted one player worth 3.7 WAR last season.
Watching the Jays’ key guys in spring training, made it appear like everyone was on track to compete for the division once again. So far, for guys like Bautista and Devon Travis, spring training didn’t mean shit, as it tends to do.
Part of me wants to give up on spring training, but the baseball nerd inside me will still count down the days from the end of October until pitchers and catchers report.
Teams can look horrendous in Arizona and Florida, and come out of the gates hot once the lights turn on. On the flipside, players and teams can look like the long winter’s worth of work in the cage and weight room has paid off, only to fall flat on their face in April.
Take the top home run hitters from spring. Tied for the most dingers with eight, was Bryce Harper and Greg Bird. Harper and Bird weren’t shockers. If someone told you that one of the best hitting prospects was eager to bounce back from year lost due to injury and the a former MVP led the spring in bombs, you would have no problem believing that.
Since teams broke camp, Harper hasn’t missed a beat, but Bird has only homered once and is fighting to hit above .100.
Tied for third place with seven homers in spring training home runs were four players that you have probably never heard of.
Jesus Aguilar failed to break camp with the Milwaukee Brewers, Jabari Blash is playing a backup corner outfield role for the San Diego Padres and only has 27 at bats this season, Chris Marrero has five hits in 32 at bats for a San Francisco Giants team that has struggled to find healthy bodies and Peter O’Brien was left of the worst hitting team in the big leagues, the Kansas City Royals roster. All four men had productive spring by any statistical measure, but can’t find any traction in the big leagues.
Then you take a look at the Blue Jays spring training.
In limited action because of the World Baseball Classic or because they were being eased into action for whatever reason, the Jays two best hitters were Travis and Bautista.
In four games, Travis went 7-for-13 with three RBI. Incredibly small sample size, but you would have thought some of that momentum would have seeped into the regular season.
Pre-WBC, Bautista looked like the old Bautista. He looked like the guy who entered camp with a chip on his shoulder, ready to prove that last season was injury-plagued and that he deserved the $150 million dollar deal he dreamt of a year prior.
He was driving the ball the other way, very un-Bautista-like, finishing with a pair of homers and a .414 average in 29 at bats.
In five games with the Dominican Republic, Bautista managed to crank out six hits, including a blast to the moon against team Canada, carrying a .935 OPS.
But then the calendar flipped to the regular season and everything got thrown out the window.
I JUST WANT SPRING TRAINING TO PROVIDE A LITTLE BETTER OF AN INDICATION OF WHAT IS TO COME IN THE REGULAR SEASON. IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK???
It just blows my mind to see a team can come out to start the regular season and completely lay an egg the way the Jays did.
NOBODY saw this April coming. NOBODY.
Last season, the Jays were one of the most powerful teams in the AL. The finished with the third most home runs (221) and carried the sixth best OPS at .755.
In April, when they were healthy half of the time, they hit the third-fewest home runs in the AL (22) and owned the second-worst OPS, .645. They also finished second-last in runs scored (89) and on-base percentage (.295). Only the deadbeat Kansas City Royals carried a worse offence.
The whole team stunk like cheese. Near the end of April, they boasted three of the five-worst batting averages in the league, in Bautista, Travis and Martin.
The Jays finished their first two weeks of the season 2-10, which included a seven-game losing skid.
Making matters worse, was over the span of the following two weeks, when they checked four of their front-line players onto the disabled list.
Lost early, was Donaldson, who was came back earlier than expected in spring training from a calf muscle issue. He made his way back to the lineup as a DH, only to re-aggravate it once again. The former MVP has only appeared in nine games and has been out since April 13. His return is still up in the air. The Jays were 1-8 when he hit the disabled list.
The oft-injured Tulowitzki took his time working his way into the lineup during spring training. The 12-year vet probably knows his fragile body well enough and the work he needs to accomplish in order to prepare himself for another grueling season.
Tulo wasn’t Tulo when the Jays traded for him a year and a half ago. He was shocked to be dealt, had to learn a new league and new teammates in the thick of a pennant race.
Last year, he resembled the Tulo of old, carrying a .254/.318/.443 slash line with 24 homers, not too far off his career averages from his time at Coors Field (.292/.363/.500 with 29 homers).
It was more than fair to assume that Tulowitzki would continue to improve on his Blue Jay numbers, entering his second full season with the club, knowing he was going to be one of the bats leaned on to carry more of the offensive load with the departed Encarnacion.
It took Tulo a couple games to get his first hit, but if you subtract his hitless first nine at bats, Tulo was hitting at a .341 clip when he hit the disabled list while advancing to third on a ball in the dirt April 21 in Los Angeles . The Blue Jays were 4-12 (including the game he got hurt in) when he hit the 10-day DL. He has since began fielding ground balls, but has not started running.
On April 18, 20-game winner J.A. Happ left during the fourth inning in a start against the Baltimore Orioles. Originally, he believed he wouldn’t even need a stint on the DL. Well, doctors thought differently, and Happ has been out since with elbow inflammation. Reportedly, he is beginning to build up the arm strength to get up to 120-feet. We still won’t see Happ on the mound for another couple of weeks.
AL ERA leader last season Aaron Sanchez hit the disabled list May 1 with a blister on the middle finger of this throwing hand.
How ironic is it that a young arm survived last season, when everyone was concerned about the heavy workload on a young, tall, hard-throwing, skinny frame, but is now sidelined with a blister and a fingernail issue?
It’s 2017. Doctors can now swap out elbow ligaments from other areas of the body, ACL surgeries comeback quicker than ever and concussion awareness has spread to soccer of all sports, but nobody can figure out how to keep a blister from building up under Sanchez’s fingernail. It just doesn’t make sense; or, does is it the perfect metaphor for what transpired the first month of the season?
Inexplicably, without two of their best hitters and two of their top starters, the Jays have saved their seasons by leaning on replacement players while their other mainstays continued to struggle.
Down a couple key hitters, the Jays looked at guys like Martin to step up and lead the way. Instead, Martin has gotten off to another miserable start.
April and March are his second-least favourite times of year to hit, carrying a .245 average. He has struck out 190 times in the first two months, the most of any month during his career. September is his worst month with a .230 average.
With not all, but some apologies to Josh Thole, the Jays backup catcher situation this year has been an out-right disaster. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was brought in during the offseason and went 1-for-25 before the Jays showed him the door.
Now, with Martin on the DL (May 8, shoulder inflammation), the Jays will try and squeeze production out of Lucas Maile, a career .201 hitter in 164 at bats, and Mike Ohlman, who has yet to take a hack at the major league level. (Maile is currently on a 1-for-24 heater at the dish in Martin’s absence.)
And then there is Jose Bautista.
Just when spring training and the WBC got some fans excited to see the Joey Bats of 2011/12, Bautista was been one of the worst hitters in the MLB in April with a .554 OPS and 30 strikeouts.
Painful, excruciating, agonizing, uncomfortable and sickening, might be some of the verbs used to describe the feelings detected watching Bautista hit.
I don’t get it. He had every motivational reason in the world working in his favour. He had a fabulous spring training and WBC. The adjustment by lowering his hands looked good! He was hitting the ball the other way again.
But then it started counting for real and he lost it.
Already endured an 0-20 stretch that saw him strikeout 12 times, two weeks later, Bautista found himself in an 0-for-21 stretch, with 11 punch outs.
His strikeout percentage is at an all-time high 30.4 per cent, miles above his career average of 18.3 per cent, and has similar power numbers to Ryan Goins (Bautista, 3 HR, 13 RBI, .173/.305/.276. Goins 3 HR, 13 RBI, .211/.282/.368).
It’s obvious the Jays weren’t hitting. They are too good of a team, when healthy, to have the fourth-worst team average in the MLB in April (.228).
But with Tulo and Donaldson out for the near future, Martin out for at least 10 days (catching a break, playing only one playoff team over those 10 days, the Indians) and Morales taking a few days off to nurse hamstring tightness, nobody would have been shocked if the Jays slid further and further into the abyss, supplying fuel for the hot-take columns determining how much the Jays could get back in a Blow Up The Roster scenario.
A nosedive seemed inevitable. The 18-wheeler falling off a cliff that was typically reserved for another team in that city from 2004-17 looked to rear its ugly head.
Surprisingly, the 18-wheeler has steadied itself throughout multiple lineup changes and the opposite has happened.
It’s not crazy to say that the Blue Jays aren’t 15-21 without Smoak’s career season, a few timely homers from Barney and Goins, and Pillar’s hitting streak atop the lineup.
“It’s been crazy, man,” Jason Grilli told Sportsnet with an incredulous laugh, following their 7-2 win Thursday night over the Seattle Mariners. “But you know what? You know how you battle chaos? I do chaos with chaos. Sometimes you have to get even crazier. That’s why sometimes you have to say, ‘F— it.’”
I am not willing to wager tomorrow’s lunch on Smoak continuing his career year and Pillar being among the league leaders in base hits. But they are two of the driving forces in the Jays early-season resurrection.
Pillar is tied for second in the AL in base hits and is walking more than ever. Smoak, who is a career .230 hitter with runners in scoring position, is out of his skull right now, hitting .387.
It’s not just a two-man show, either.
Goins already has more home runs and RBI than he did last season despite being a Donaldson calf injury away from being released from the team in the spring, Goins, Smoak and Pearce are tied for the team lead in RBI with nine in the month of May.
Darwin Barney and Carrera are hitting over three hundred and Chris Coghlan has turned into Super Man.
Heck, you could even argue that Marcus Stroman delivered one of the biggest hits of the season at this point.
The Jays certainly aren’t manufacturing runs without their big boppers in the lineup. They are second last in the AL with three sacrifice hits and fifth-last with five sacrifice flies. Their 13 stolen base attempts is third last in the league as well.
How sustainable is this? Maybe the better question should be, what will happen to the offence when the regulars return?
It just doesn’t seem realistic to have this team propped up offensively by backup and minor league hitters.
But once again, it’s hard to ignore the improved play since the big guns hit the disabled list. The offence is coming finally coming together. Their wRC+ jumped from 90 in March/April to 97 this point in May, courtesy of the role players.
Do Jays fans want to live in a world where relying on Goins, Smoak and Carrera to produce is the best option? If you had all-star caliber players at your disposal, wouldn’t you want them in the lineup?
Despite winning nine of their last 13, they have only gained one game in the AL East over that stretch, still eight back of the Orioles.
That is very discouraging.
I’m having trouble figuring out which is the more puzzling stat: that, in which the Jays haven’t gained ground during their hottest stretch of the season (I understand they would be much worse if they weren’t keeping pace) or through their first 25 games, the Jays were 4-3 when their bullpen blew a save opportunity and 4-14 when they don’t.
You know your bullpen is off to a sluggish start if Aaron Loup looks like a viable option instead of a mop-up man with his 1.57 ERA.
It hasn’t been a smooth start for fan favourite Jason Grilli (9.31 ERA, 1.97 WHIP) and closer Roberto Osuna is starting to round into form following his blown save in the WBC against the Italians on home soil.
Stroman, so far, has turned back into the half-season, post-knee surgery self and not the roller-coaster version we saw last year. Marco Estrada is as brilliant as ever, only striking out hitters at a higher rate.
The rotation falls apart after that.
Francisco Liriano struggled to get going this year and has recently found his way onto the DL list as well. The Jays can almost field a slo-pitch team with their DL roster these days.
There are too many leaky holes to plug in their rotation, but manager John Gibbons is trying to get by with Casey Lawrence, Matt Latos, Mike Bolsinger and Joe Biagini.
Combined, the trio is 0-6 with a 7.69 ERA, with 25 strikeouts and 23 walks in 13.1 innings as starters. (Biagini hasn’t walked one batter or given up a run in his two starts.)
Last season, the Jays used seven different starters to get through the season. This year, they have already used nine. The rotation needs to come together to provide stability for the franchise.
In hockey, the backup goaltender’s job is to go .500 throughout the season, keeping the team afloat while the starter rests. Since the Donaldson injury, the Jays are 14-13, fulfilling their .500 benchmark. It is because of the backups, that the Jays have a chance; slim as it may be, but a chance. The onus now falls on the players returning to keep the momentum going to try and climb back into contention.
This team is too good, when healthy, to start auctioning off pieces for assets at the trade deadline with 125-ish games remaining in the season.
Finally playing good baseball, what do we expect as key pieces return to the lineup? Do they revert back to their old ways in early April or do they continue to roll? Is it easy to step off the DL list onto the field and expect to return to your career averages? What happens when you remove the hot-hitting backup players from the lineup?
Using one of my favourite writer’s (Henry Schulman from the San Francisco Chronicle, breaking the season into nine-game chucks, top and bottom innings) math formula, the Jays are currently in the bottom of the second inning of the season right now. They’re on the road and their pitcher has thrown 48 pitches to get five outs but there are still runners in scoring position. It hasn’t been good, no question about that and there is a long road ahead. Unless this is the Year From Hell for this franchise, the Jays should be in the mix come late-August.
This is a team that has rattled off 11-game winning streaks easily in the past and has a history of getting hotter than a pistol in a hurry. The backups stabilized the lineup and put the casing back over the panic button for now. It’s probably best to wait for the starters to return to the lineup and then reassess the situation in another month. That might make the most sense of any plausible scenario.